Forty-six patients with idiopathic growth hormone deficiency were examined by magnetic resonance imaging at a mean (+/- SEM) age of 9 +/- 1 years (range 15 days to 20 years). They were classified into two groups according to MRI images: group 1 (n = 29) had pituitary stalk interruption syndrome and group 2 (n = 17) had normal pituitary anatomy. All patients with pituitary stalk interruption had a pituitary height at less than -2 SD for age; three had no visible anterior pituitary lobe. By contrast, the pituitary height was less than normal in only 10 patients (60%) with normal pituitary anatomy. Growth hormone deficiency was transient in one of the seven patients with normal pituitary anatomy and height. The group with pituitary stalk interruption had the first symptom of growth hormone deficiency at an earlier age (2.8 +/- 0.6 vs 5.5 +/- 1.2 years; p less than 0.001), were of smaller stature (-4 +/- 0.2 vs -3 +/- 0.2 SD; p less than 0.01) and had lower GH peak response to provocative testing (3 +/- 0.4 vs 5 +/- 0.5 ng/ml; p less than 0.001) than did the group with normal pituitary anatomy. Their pituitary gland was also shorter (2.5 +/- 0.2 vs 3.5 +/- 0.2 mm; p less than 0.01). All the patients with multiple pituitary deficiencies except one (n = 19) belonged to this group. One girl with pituitary stalk interruption and deficiencies in growth hormone and thyroid-stimulating hormone had advanced central precocious puberty. We conclude that the evaluation of the shape and height of the pituitary gland by MRI is an additional tool for the diagnosis of growth hormone deficiency. The presence of pituitary stalk interruption confirms this diagnosis and is predictive of multiple anterior pituitary deficiencies. The lack of a significant increase in perinatal abnormalities in this group and the association of pituitary stalk interruption with microphallus and with facial or sella abnormalities suggest that this appearance may have an early antenatal origin. The finding of a familial case of pituitary stalk interruption suggests a genetic origin.