Conventional MRI sequences do not permit the distinction between the different pathological characteristics (oedema, demyelination, gliosis, axonal loss) of the multiple sclerosis plaque. Magnetisation transfer imaging and transverse magnetisation decay curve (tMDC) analysis may be more specific. These techniques have been applied to the optic nerves in 20 patients with optic neuritis and the results correlated with clinical and visual evoked potential (VEP) findings. tMDC analysis failed to identify separate intracellular and extracellular water compartments within the optic nerve but gave a measure of transverse relaxation time (T2) without the confounding effects of CSF in the nerve sheath. Both T2 and magnetisation transfer ratio (MTR) were abnormal after an episode of optic neuritis. T2 did not correlate with visual function or with VEP latency or amplitude. There was a significant correlation between MTR reduction and prolongation of VEP latency: this increased latency may reflect an effect of myelin loss on MTR. Longer lesions were associated with worse visual outcome, implying that the overall extent of pathological involvement is likely to influence the degree of functional deficit.