We used MRI for in vivo measurement of brain water self-diffusion in patients with intracranial tumours. The study included 28 patients (12 with high-grade and 3 with low-grade gliomas, 7 with metastases, 5 with meningiomas and 1 with a cerebral abscess). Apparent diffusion coefficients (ADC) were calculated in a single axial slice through the tumours, the sequence was sensitive to diffusion along the cephalocaudal axis. Our main finding was that ADC in contrast-enhancing areas within cerebral metastases was statistically significantly higher than ADC in contrast-enhancing areas in high-grade gliomas (P < or = 0.05). Furthermore, the ADC in oedema surrounding metastases were statistically significantly higher the ADC in oedema around high-grade gliomas (P < or = 0.02). The ADC in patients with meningiomas did not differ significantly from those seen with high-grade gliomas or cerebral metastases. The highest ADC were found within cystic or necrotic tumour areas. In one patient with a cerebral abscess, suspected of having a high-grade glioma, the ADC was similar to that in high-grade gliomas. The finding of higher ADC in cerebral metastases than in high-grade gliomas may be helpful in trying to distinguish between these tumours preoperatively; it suggests increased free extracellular and/or intracellular water fraction in cerebral metastases. The method seems to hold potential for further noninvasive characterisation of intracranial tumours.