The relationship of outcome to the appearance of the basal cisterns as seen on initial computerized tomography (CT) scanning was assessed in 218 consecutive severely head-injured patients entered into the second phase of the National Pilot Traumatic Coma Data Bank. Outcome could be directly related to the status of the basal cisterns on the initial CT scan. The mortality rates were 77%, 39%, and 22% among those with absent, compressed, and normal basal cisterns, respectively. This association between cisterns and outcome was shown to be strong after adjusting for Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS) score (p less than 0.001). The state of the cisterns was more important for those with higher GCS scores (scores 6 to 8) than for those with lower scores (scores 3 to 5). Patients with GCS scores of 6 to 8, with cisterns absent or not visualized, suffered nearly a fourfold additional risk of poor outcome, compared to those with normal cisterns. This indicates that the status of the cisterns can be used as an early noninvasive method of identifying patients at high risk of death or severe disability, in whom the initial neurological examination would potentially suggest otherwise.