We investigated the relationship between local tissue destruction, diffuse cerebral atrophy and clinical progression in patients with established multiple sclerosis (MS). Twenty-nine patients with MS (13 patients with relapsing--remitting and 16 with secondary progressive disease) were included in a prospective serial study. Cerebral volumes, T1 hypointense lesion volumes, T2 hyperintense lesion volumes at baseline and at 18 months follow-up, and the volume of monthly enhancing lesions from month 0 to month 9 were assessed on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans using highly reproducible semi-automated quantitative techniques. The main outcome measures were the MRI parameters and disability on Kurtzkes' Expanded Disability Status Scale. There was a significant correlation between the change (increase) in T1 lesion volume and progressive cerebral atrophy, whereas no correlation between the T2 lesion volume and atrophy was seen over the same follow-up period. The change in T1 lesion volume correlated more strongly than did T2 lesion volume change with the change in disability. We conclude that hypointense abnormalities detected in T1-weighted brain scans and cerebral atrophy may be directly linked. Although one should bear in mind some potential for reversibility due to inflammatory, oedematous lesions, these MR measures are a useful marker of progressive tissue damage and clinical progression in established MS.