Evidence from both clinical and experimental studies demonstrates that mild hypothermia prevents encephalopathy and brain edema in acute liver failure (ALF). As part of a series of studies to elucidate the mechanism(s) involved in this protective effect, groups of rats with ALF resulting from hepatic devascularization were maintained at either 37 degrees C (normothermic) or 35 C (hypothermic), and neurological status was monitored in relation to cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) concentrations of ammonia and lactate. CSF was removed via implanted cisterna magna catheters. Mild hypothermia resulted in a delay in onset of encephalopathy and prevention of brain edema, CSF concentrations of ammonia and lactate were concomitantly decreased. Blood ammonia concentrations, on the other hand, were not affected by hypothermia in ALF rats. These findings suggest that brain edema and encephalopathy in ALF are the consequence of ammonia-induced impairment of brain energy metabolism and open the way for magnetic resonance spectroscopic monitoring of cerebral function in ALF. Mild hypothermia could be beneficial in the prevention of severe encephalopathy and brain edema in patients with ALF awaiting liver transplantation.