Noninvasive studies of regional cerebral blood flow (CBF) were performed on 36 head-injured patients in varying degrees of coma, using the intravenous xenon-133 method. Serial examinations, averaging four per patient, were begun during the acute phase of illness and continued until death of recovery of normal consciousness. Comparison of the initial and final studies revealed that CBF declined to very low levels in all nine patients who died, and remained subnormal in a patient with persistent vegetative state. In contrast, 25 of 26 patients who recovered consciousness showed increases in blood flow. Because of the presence of both reduced and elevated blood flows on the initial study, CBF was not predictive of outcome. Absolute or relative hyperemia, observed in nine acute cases, was associated with either diffuse cerebral swelling (observed on computerized tomography) or recovery from systemic shock. Cerebral metabolic studies in hyperemic patients yielded a very low oxygen uptake and arteriovenous oxygen difference, indicating that the high blood flow was a true "luxury perfusion." When instances of presumed luxury perfusion were excluded, CBF was positively correlated with level of consciousness, assessed on a four-point coma scale.