We related the histopathologic changes associated with incidental white matter signal hyperintensities on MRIs from 11 elderly patients (age range, 52 to 82 years) to a descriptive classification for such abnormalities. Punctate, early confluent, and confluent white matter hyperintensities corresponded to increasing severity of ischemic tissue damage, ranging from mild perivascular alterations to large areas with variable loss of fibers, multiple small cavitations, and marked arteriolosclerosis. Microcystic infarcts and patchy rarefaction of myelin were also characteristic for irregular periventricular high signal intensity. Hyperintense periventricular caps and a smooth halo, however, were of nonischemic origin and constituted areas of demyelination associated with subependymal gliosis and discontinuity of the ependymal lining. Based on these findings, our classification appears to reflect both the different etiologies and severities of incidental MRI signal abnormalities, if it is modified to treat irregular periventricular and confluent deep white matter hyperintensities together.