To determine three-dimensional (3D) blood flow patterns in the carotid bifurcation, 10 healthy volunteers and nine patients with internal carotid artery (ICA) stenosis > or =50% were examined by flow-sensitive 4D MRI at 3T. Absolute and mean blood velocities, pulsatility index (PI), and resistance index (RI) were measured in the common carotid arteries (CCAs) by duplex sonography (DS) and compared with flow-sensitive 4D MRI. Furthermore, 3D MRI blood flow patterns in the carotid bifurcation of volunteers and patients before and after recanalization were graded by two independent readers. Blood flow velocities measured by MRI were 31-39% lower than in DS. However, PI and RI differed by only 13-16%. Rating of 3D flow characteristics in the ICA revealed consistent patterns for filling and helical flow in volunteers. In patients with ICA stenosis, 3D blood flow visualization was successfully employed to detect markedly altered filling and helical flow patterns (forward-moving spiral flow) in the ICA bulb and to evaluate the effect of revascularization, which restored filling and helical flow. Our results demonstrate the feasibility of flow-sensitive 4D MRI for the quantification and 3D visualization of physiological and pathological flow patterns in the carotid artery bifurcation.