The MR images and CT scans of 14 patients with surgically verified pyogenic cerebral abscesses were reviewed. The MR findings correlated well with those seen on CT and were believed to be sufficiently characteristic to allow early and accurate diagnosis with MR alone. These features include (1) peripheral edema producing mild hypointensity on short TR/short TE and marked hyperintensity on long TR/intermediate to long TE scans; (2) central necrosis with abscess fluid hypointense relative to white matter and hyperintense relative to CSF on short TR/short TE scans and hyperintense relative to gray matter on long TR/intermediate to long TE scans (the fluid had concentric zones of varying intensity in seven cases, a finding not previously identified in other lesions); (3) extraparenchymal spread (intraventricular or subarachnoid), which was detected more easily on MR than on CT and was manifested by increased intensity relative to normal CSF on both short TR/short TE and long TR/intermediate TE scans; and (4) visualization of the abscess capsule, which was iso- to mildly hyperintense relative to brain on short TR/short TE scans and iso- to hypointense relative to white matter on long TR/intermediate to long TE scans. On the long TR scans, the relative hypointensity of the rim allowed for visualization of the typical morphologic features of the capsule, which in turn aided in differentiation of abscesses from other lesions (as it does on CT). To investigate the cause of the capsular intensity, pathologic studies of the capsules were reviewed when available (10 cases). Fibrosis was identified in all mature abscess capsules, but the combination of the intensities seen on short TR/short TE and long TR/intermediate to long TE scans as well as the temporal changes in intensity were believed to be incompatible with fibrosis as a cause of the capsular changes. Intensity patterns were suggestive of hemorrhage, but neither acute nor chronic hemorrhage was identified on routine H and E stains, while iron stain revealed scant hemorrhage in only two of the eight patients in whom these stains were used. We believe the capsular intensity (in particular the hypointense rims on long TR scans) may reflect paramagnetic T1, and to a greater extent T2, shortening, possibly due to the presence of heterogeneously distributed free radicals that are products of the respiratory burst produced by actively phagocytosing macrophages in the capsule wall. Distinctive MR features of pyogenic abscesses should afford early and accurate diagnosis.