Hepatic encephalopathy is a common problem in cirrhosis. The pathogenesis of this complication of advanced liver disease still remains unclear. Magnetic resonance spectroscopy was used to assess prospectively cerebral metabolism in 51 patients with histologically proven cirrhosis (Child-Pugh classes A, B, and C, 18, 18, and 15, respectively) and 36 healthy volunteers. According to the results of psychometric tests, overt hepatic encephalopathy, subclinical encephalopathy, and no encephalopathy were found in 14, 21, and 16 patients, respectively. Myoinositol/creatine ratios in gray (.36 +/- .17) and white (.35 +/- .22) matter voxel were reduced significantly (P < .0001) in cirrhotic patients compared with healthy volunteers (gray matter, .51 +/- .11; white matter, .64 +/- .16). In addition, patients showed a significant reduction (P = .024) in white matter choline/creatine ratio (.77 +/- .27) compared with controls (.92 +/- .25), and glutamine/glutamate level was elevated in cirrhotic patients compared with controls (gray matter, P < .0001; white matter, P = .036). Changes in cerebral myoinositol and glutamine/glutamate levels correlated significantly with the severity of hepatic encephalopathy (P < .0001). However, these metabolic alterations were also detected in patients without hepatic encephalopathy (normal psychometric test results). N-acetyl aspartate/creatine ratios did not differ between patients and controls. Magnetic resonance imaging detected bright basal ganglia in 37 patients, which correlated significantly with portal-systemic shunting and elevation of glutamine/glutamate, but not with the degree of hepatic encephalopathy. In conclusion, magnetic resonance imaging and spectroscopy showed that alterations of cerebral metabolism are common in patients with cirrhosis, even without evidence of clinical or subclinical hepatic encephalopathy.