The effects of the benzodiazepine antagonist flumazenil were studied in 20 episodes of hepatic encephalopathy (HE) in 17 patients with acute (n = 9) or chronic (n = 8) liver failure who had not responded to conventional therapy. Patients with a history of benzodiazepine intake were excluded. Changes in HE stage, in Glasgow coma scale, and in somatosensory evoked potentials were measured. In 12 of 20 episodes HE stage improved. The response to treatment occurred rapidly (within 3-60 min). In 8 of these 12 episodes HE worsened 0.5-4 h after treatment. In 5 of the 8 episodes that did not respond to flumazenil patients had clinical evidence of brain oedema. Flumazenil may be valuable in the treatment of HE in acute and chronic liver failure.