Functional imaging with MRI contrast agents is an emerging experimental approach that can combine the specificity of cellular neural recording techniques with noninvasive whole-brain coverage. A variety of contrast agents sensitive to aspects of brain activity have recently been introduced. These include new probes for calcium and other metal ions that offer high sensitivity and membrane permeability, as well as imaging agents for high-resolution pH and metabolic mapping in living animals. Genetically encoded MRI contrast agents have also been described. Several of the new probes have been validated in the brain; in vivo use of other agents remains a challenge. This review outlines advantages and disadvantages of specific molecular imaging approaches and discusses current or potential applications in neurobiology.