Direct imaging of the atherosclerotic plaque, rather than the angiographic lumen, may provide greater insight into the response of atherosclerosis to cholesterol-lowering therapy. Aortic plaque was studied in vivo by MRI in rabbits undergoing dietary cholesterol intervention. Thirty-one rabbits underwent aortic balloon injury and high-cholesterol diet for 4 months and then were assigned to low-cholesterol versus continued high-cholesterol diet for up to an additional 16 months. High-resolution (310 micrometer) fast spin-echo MRI of the abdominal aorta was performed at 4, 12, and 20 months and compared with histology. MRI demonstrated a significant reduction in % area stenosis in rabbits placed on low-cholesterol diet (44.6+/-2. 1% at 20 months versus 55.8+/-1.5% at 4 months, P=0.0002). In contrast, % area stenosis increased in rabbits maintained on high-cholesterol diet (69.8+/-3.8% at 20 months versus 55.8+/-1.5% at 4 months, P=0.001). Similarly, plaque thickness decreased significantly in the low-cholesterol group (0.60+/-0.05 mm at 20 months versus 0.85+/-0.06 mm at 4 months, P=0.006), with a trend toward increase in the high-cholesterol group (1.02+/-0.08 mm at 20 months versus 0.85+/-0.06 mm at 4 months, P=0.1). Thus, in rabbits undergoing dietary cholesterol lowering, MRI detected regression of aortic atherosclerotic plaque in vivo. Plaque progression was seen with maintenance of high-cholesterol diet. MRI is a promising noninvasive technology for directly imaging atherosclerosis and its response to therapeutic interventions.