This study assessed optic nerve mean area on serial MRI in a cohort of patients with a first episode of acute unilateral optic neuritis to assess the effects of a single acute inflammatory demyelinating lesion. Twenty-nine patients with a median delay from onset of visual symptoms of 13 days (range 7-24 days) were recruited. After a clinical examination and visual evoked potential (VEP) measurement, each patient had their optic nerves imaged with a coronal fat-saturated short echo fast fluid-attenuated inversion recovery sequence. Twenty-one patients had serial examinations after 2, 4, 8, 12, 26 and 52 weeks. In addition, 32 control subjects had their optic nerves imaged up to three times. The mean cross-sectional area of the intra-orbital portion of each optic nerve was calculated by a blinded observer using a computer-assisted contouring technique. At baseline, the mean area of diseased optic nerves was 16.1 mm2 compared with 13.4 mm2 for healthy contralateral optic nerves (20.1% higher, P < 0.0001) and 13.6 mm2 for controls (18.4% higher, P = 0.0003). The diseased optic nerve mean area declined over time, from initial swelling to later atrophy. The mean decline at 52 weeks was -0.0018 mm2/day (95% confidence interval -0.0038 to -0.00051). At 52 weeks, the mean area of diseased optic nerves was 11.3 mm2 compared with 12.8 mm2 for healthy contralateral optic nerves (11.7% lower, P = 0.032) and 13.1 mm2 for controls (13.7% lower, P = 0.008). The 52 week diseased optic nerve mean area was not significantly affected by the baseline mean area. There was an association between baseline optic nerve mean area and logMAR visual acuity (rS = 0.46, P = 0.012) and visual field mean deviation (rS = -0.55, P = 0.002), but there was no evidence of an association between 1 year mean area and visual outcome. There was no evidence of association between baseline, rates of decline or 1 year diseased optic nerve mean areas and any of the baseline, 1 year or time-averaged VEP variables. The present study shows a consistent pattern of changes associated with individual inflammatory demyelinating lesions in the optic nerve. Acutely, there was swelling, consistent with the presence of acute inflammation, which was related to visual impairment. Over the longer term, there was loss of tissue. The lack of association between 1 year optic nerve mean area and visual outcome may reflect a mild loss of tissue, redundancy or remodelling of function.