We determined the cerebral hemodynamic changes in infants with asymptomatic polycythemic hyperviscosity syndrome and whether treatment with partial plasma exchange transfusion (PPET) would affect hemodynamics as well as outcome. From a routine cord blood hematocrit screening, 71 babies were identified as needing to be tested for polycythemic hyperviscosity. In addition to clinical evaluation, each infant had radial artery hematocrit and viscosity determinations, blood gas determinations, cerebral blood flow velocity studies, cranial ultrasonography, and noninvasive intracranial pressure determination. Babies with symptomatic hyperviscosity (n = 17) were treated by PPET, whereas those with asymptomatic hyperviscosity (n = 28) were randomly selected to have PPET (n = 14) or to be observed (n = 14). The remaining babies (n = 26) with normal viscosity served as control subjects. Both hematocrit and viscosity decreased after PPET but remained unchanged in babies with hyperviscosity who were merely observed. Reversal of cerebral blood flow velocity abnormalities was observed after PPET in the infants with symptomatic hyperviscosity, whereas those who had no symptoms had normal results on Doppler studies at the outset, and no significant changes occurred with either PPET or observation. There were two deaths in the group with symptoms. A total of 46 babies returned for follow-up evaluation at a mean age of 30 +/- 7.7 months. Outcome of the control group was no better than that of those who had hyperviscosity, and outcomes did not differ between the babies with symptomatic and those with asymptomatic hyperviscosity, nor between those treated with PPET and those who were only observed. Multivariate analysis revealed that other perinatal risk factors and race rather than polycythemia or PPET, significantly influenced long-term outcome.