MRI readily detects the lesions of multiple sclerosis (MS) in the brain and spinal cord. Conventional MRI sequences do not, however, permit distinction between the various pathological characteristics (oedema, demyelination, axonal loss and gliosis) of lesions in MS. Magnetisation transfer (MT) imaging may be more specific in distinguishing the pathologies responsible for disability in MS, namely demyelination and axonal loss, and therefore may have a potential role in monitoring treatment. We have applied MT imaging to the cervical spinal cord to see if it is feasible to measure MT ratios (MTR) in this region where pathological changes may result in considerable disability. We studied 12 patients with MS and 12 age- and sex-matched normal controls using a sagittal T2-weighted fast spin-echo sequence with and without an MT pulse. The median value for cervical cord mean MTR measurement in normal controls was 19.30% units (interquartile range 19.05-19.55), whereas values were significantly lower in MS patients (median = 17.95% units, interquartile range 17.25-19.00, P = 0.0004). There was a low intrarater variability for repeated mean MTR measurements. We conclude that it is possible to measure MTR in the cervical spinal cord, that a significant reduction occurs in patients with MS, and that there may be a role for this measure in future MS treatment trials.