Sixty patients with acute idiopathic vestibular neuritis (confirmed by clinical examination and caloric irrigation) were evaluated in a prospective study by high resolution magnetic resonance imaging (hr-MRI) between days 3 and 30 after onset of symptoms. We used a 1.5 Tesla imager with an axial and coronal T1-weighted 2D-fast low angle shot-, T2-weighted turbo spin echo-, and an axial T2-weighted 3D-constructive interference in steady-state sequence for MRI. None of the patients' MRIs exhibited contrast enhancement of the labyrinth, vestibulocochlear nerve, or vestibular ganglion, even when high doses of gadolinium (0.2 mmol/kg) were used. In contrast, several previous studies demonstrated contrast enhancement of the vestibulocochlear nerve/labyrinth in herpes zoster oticus, labyrinthitis, and Cogan's syndrome or of the facial nerve in Bell's palsy. On the basis of our MRI findings, we speculate that idiopathic vestibular neuritis is neither a viral infection directly affecting the nerve (such as herpes zoster) nor a labyrinthitis. An autoimmunological disease of the labyrinth, which should involve only the anterior and horizontal semicircular canals, is also unlikely. A subacute reactivation of a latent viral infection--as discussed for Bell's palsy--is compatible with our MRI findings. The observed differences between contrast enhancement of the facial nerve in Bell's palsy and the vestibulocochlear nerve in vestibular neuritis may be due to their dissimilar anatomy: contrary to the vestibular nerve, the facial nerve has very prominent circumneural arteriovenous structures. Hyperemia within these vascular structures may cause the contrast enhancement seen in Bell's palsy.