Localized brain proton MR spectra were acquired from patients with different mitochondrial encephalomyopathies (myoclonus epilepsy with ragged-red fibers [MERRF], Kearns-Sayre syndrome [KSS], and mitochondrial encephalomyopathy, lactic acidosis, and stroke-like episodes [MELAS]). The regional brain metabolic abnormalities in patients with these syndromes showed different features consistent with the distinct phenotypes. In MERRF, only one of four patients showed an increase in the lactate/creatine resonance intensity ratio (an index of impairment of oxidative metabolism) in spectra from central (supraventricular) or occipital brain volumes, and this was small. There were significant decreases in N-acetylaspartate/creatine (a measure of neuronal loss or dysfunction) in central cerebral volumes of demented patients and, more prominently, in occipital volumes. In the one patient in whom it was studied, the cerebellum also showed a decreased N-acetylaspartate/creatine. Spectra from two patients with KSS both showed large (four- to sevenfold) increases in lactate/creatine and large decreases in N-acetylaspartate/creatine in central brain volumes. Yet another pattern of regional metabolic abnormality was present in the MELAS syndrome, where proton spectroscopic imaging demonstrated focal localization of abnormally increased lactate/creatine and decreased N-acetylaspartate/creatine to the regions of the stroke-like lesions on conventional MR images. Serial studies emphasized that the regional metabolic abnormalities in MELAS are highly variable as the stroke-like lesions appear and evolve.