The type, frequency, and extent of MR signal abnormalities in Alzheimer's disease and normal aging are a subject of controversy. With a 1.5-MR unit we studied 12 Alzheimer patients, four subjects suffering from multiinfarct dementia and nine age-matched controls. Punctate or early confluent high-signal abnormalities in the deep white matter, noted in 60% of both Alzheimer patients and controls, were unrelated to the presence of hypertension or other vascular risk factors. A significant number of Alzheimer patients exhibited a more extensive smooth "halo" of periventricular hyperintensity when compared with controls (p = .024). Widespread deep white-matter hyperintensity (two patients) and extensive, irregular periventricular hyperintensity (three patients) were seen in multiinfarct dementia. Areas of high signal intensity affecting hippocampal and sylvian cortex were also present in five Alzheimer and two multiinfarct dementia patients, but absent in controls. Discrete, small foci of deep white-matter hyperintensity are not characteristic of Alzheimer's disease nor do they appear to imply a vascular cause for the dementing illness. The frequently observed "halo" of periventricular hyperintensity in Alzheimer's disease may be of diagnostic importance. High-signal abnormalities in specific cortical regions are likely to reflect disease processes localized to those structures.