We examined 13 patients with neurological manifestations of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) based on previous and/or current neurological or psychotic episodes by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) together with psychiatric and cognitive assessment. MRI was abnormal in 7 patients, showing high signal lesions in the white matter and/or cerebral atrophy. Proton MRS centred on white matter lesions in 5 patients showed a reduction in the N-acetyl aspartate creatine ratio compared with normal appearing white matter in the SLE group and in 10 healthy controls. This pattern of abnormality does not allow differentiation of SLE lesions from the chronic plaques occurring in multiple sclerosis. There was a very high incidence of current psychiatric morbidity in the SLE group, namely in 12 of the 13 patients. There was no correlation between the presence of current psychiatric involvement and/or cognitive dysfunction and abnormalities detected with MRI or MRS.