Human umbilical cord mesenchymal stem cells (hUC-MSCs) can be efficiently labeled by superparamagnetic iron oxide (SPIO) nanoparticles, which produces low signal intensity on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in vitro. This study was to evaluate the feasibility of in vivo tracking for hUC-MSCs labeled by SPIO with noninvasive MRI. SPIO was added to cultures at concentrations equivalent to 0, 7, 14, 28, and 56 µg Fe/ml (diluted with DMEM/F12) and incubated for 16 h. Prussian Blue staining was used to determinate the labeling efficiency. Rats were randomly divided into three groups, control group, hUC-MSCs group, and SPIO-labeled hUC-MSCs group. All groups were subjected to spinal cord injury (SCI) by weight drop device. Rats were examined for neurological function. In vivo MRI was used to track SPIO-labeled hUC-MSCs transplanted in rats spinal cord. Survival and migration of hUC-MSCs were also explored using immunofluorescence. Significant improvements in locomotion were observed in the hUC-MSCs groups. There was statistical significance compared with control group. In vivo MRI 1 and 3 weeks after injection showed a large reduction in signal intensity in the region transplanted with SPIO-labeled hUC-MSCs. The images from unlabeled hUC-MSCs showed a smaller reduction in signal intensity. Transplanted hUC-MSCs engrafted within the injured rats spinal cord and survived for at least 8 weeks. In conclusion, hUC-MSCs can survive and migrate in the host spinal cord after transplantation, which promote functional recovery after SCI. Noninvasive imaging of transplanted SPIO-labeled hUC-MSCs is feasible. J. Cell. Biochem. 113: 1005–1012, 2012. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.