BACKGROUND With the advent of new therapies for metastatic carcinoma to the brain, patterns of intracranial disease and factors influencing survival become important considerations when examining potential treatment options. METHODS The records of 729 patients with metastases to the brain treated during the period between 1973 to 1993 were reviewed. RESULTS Primary tumor histologic type in order of descending frequency included nonsmall cell lung carcinoma (NSCLC), breast carcinoma, small cell lung carcinoma (SCLC), malignant melanoma, renal cell carcinoma, gastrointestinal carcinoma, uterine/vulvar carcinoma, and unknown primary carcinoma. There were 384 patients (53%) with a single brain metastasis, which was encountered most commonly in patients with prostate carcinoma and least often in patients with SCLC. Multiple metastases were present in 345 patients (47%). The median duration from diagnosis to presentation with a brain metastasis was 12 months, ranging from 3 months for patients with NSCLC to 53 months for patients with breast carcinoma. The median duration from presentation with brain metastases to death was 4 months, ranging from 3 months for patients with SCLC to 13 months for patients with prostate carcinoma. Median survival from presentation with brain metastases to death was 5 months for patients with single lesions and 3 months for patients with multifocal disease (P = 0.0001). Median survival for patients with a single lesion was 11 months with surgery and 3 months without surgery (P = 0.0001). Surgery did not significantly influence survival in patients with multiple metastases. CONCLUSIONS Dissemination of systemic carcinoma to the brain continues to carry a poor prognosis. Knowledge of the metastatic patterns and limited survival associated with specific tumor types may be useful for guiding future therapeutic intervention.