Mechanisms responsible for disproportional sedation resulting from triazolam administration to patients with cirrhosis were investigated. Ordinary sedative doses (0.25 mg) were given p.o. to 8 cirrhotics and 18 controls. Plasma concentrations of unbound drug were assessed by capillary gas chromatography and equilibrium dialysis. Median apparent oral clearances of unbound triazolam were 14.8 ml per min per kg in cirrhotics and 23.9 ml per min per kg in controls (p less than 0.01). Clearances were significantly correlated with severity of liver disease as assessed by the aminopyrine breath test (Rs = 0.77, n = 17, p less than 0.001). At a time when plasma concentrations of unbound triazolam were the same in both groups, i.e., 2.25 hr after dosing, flicker sensitivity at 5 Hz which was used as an index of CNS performance was impaired by a factor of 3.2 in cirrhotics and 1.4 in controls (p less than 0.01 for group difference). Performance was also significantly lower in cirrhotics with the digit symbol substitution test (p less than 0.05). It is concluded that, in patients with cirrhosis, disproportional sedation after benzodiazepine administration may be due not only to impaired drug elimination, but also to hypersensitivity of the brain.