BACKGROUND AND PURPOSE Spontaneous echo contrast (SEC) is thought to represent a risk factor for cardioembolic stroke. In vitro studies suggest that SEC results from interaction between red cells and fibrinogen. To better understand the relation between SEC and stroke and to investigate the in vivo genesis of SEC, we examined the relation between SEC, the constituents of the blood, and plasma and serum viscosity in patients with acute stroke or chronic cerebrovascular disease. METHODS Fifty patients with acute stroke or chronic cerebrovascular disease referred for transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE) were studied by transthoracic echocardiography and TEE. Complete blood count, fibrinogen, albumin, gamma-globulin, and plasma and serum viscosity determinations were made. Left atrial SEC was graded as absent, mild, or marked by means of TEE. RESULTS SEC was absent in 31 patients, mild in 10 patients, and marked in 9 patients. Higher grade of SEC was associated with a significantly greater percentage of patients with atrial fibrillation and larger left atrial dimension. Atrial fibrillation was present in 23% of the patients in the SEC absent group, 50% of the patients in the mild SEC group, and 78% of the patients in the marked SEC group (P < .01). Left atrial diameter averaged 3.8 +/- 0.6 cm in the SEC absent group, 4.3 +/- 1.1 in the mild SEC group, and 4.9 +/- 0.7 in the marked SEC group (P < .001). Hematocrit, white blood cell count, and platelet count did not differ among the three groups. Fibrinogen, gamma-globulin, plasma viscosity, and serum viscosity values were all significantly higher in the presence of SEC (P < .05). Fibrinogen values were 361 +/- 97 mg/dL in the SEC absent group and 427 +/- 135 mg/dL in the marked SEC group. gamma-Globulin levels were 0.75 +/- 0.23 g/dL in the SEC absent group and 1.06 +/- 0.48 g/dL in the marked SEC group. Both plasma viscosity (1.97 cp) and serum viscosity (1.64 cp) were higher in the marked SEC group than in the SEC absent group (1.77 and 1.50 cp, respectively). CONCLUSIONS In patients with acute stroke or chronic cerebrovascular disease, the severity of SEC was not related to albumin, hematocrit, white cell count, or platelet count but rather to elevated fibrinogen levels and concomitant increases in both plasma and serum viscosity. Moreover, increasing grade of SEC was associated with significantly increased left atrial diameter and a higher percentage of patients in atrial fibrillation.