Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain is the most important paraclinical diagnostic test in multiple sclerosis (MS). The appearance of MRI in Asians with MS is not well defined. We retrospectively surveyed the first brain and spinal cord MRI in patients diagnosed to have MS, according to Poser's criteria in seven regions throughout Asia to define the MRI changes among Asians with MS. There were 101 patients with first brain, and 86 with first spinal cord MRI, 66 of whom had both. The brain MRI showed a mean of 17 lesions per patient in T2 weighted images, mostly asymptomatic. Almost all the lesions were in the white matter, particularly in the juxtacortical, deep and periventricular white matter. A third of the lesions were greater than 5 mm, 14% enhanced with gadolinium. There were more supratentorial than infratentorial lesions at a ratio of 7.5: 1. Ninety five percent of the spinal cord lesions were in cervical and thoracic regions, 34% enhanced with gadolinium. The lesions extended over a mean of 3.6 +/- 3.3 vertebral bodies in length. Fifty (50%) of the brain and 54 (63%) of the spinal MRI patients had the optic-spinal form of MS. The MRI of the optic-spinal and classical groups of patients were similar in appearance and distribution, except that the optic-spinal MS patients have fewer brain but longer and more severe spinal cord lesions. In conclusion, the brain and spinal cord MRI of Asian patients with MS was similar to that of the West, although, in this study, Asian MS patients had larger spinal cord lesions.