It is shown that diffusion tensor MR imaging (DTI) can discretely delineate the microstructure of white matter and gray matter in embryonic and early postnatal mouse brains based on the existence and orientation of ordered structures. This order was found not only in white matter but also in the cortical plate and the periventricular zone, which are precursors of the cerebral cortex. This DTI-based information could be used to accomplish the automated spatial definition of the cortical plate and various axonal tracts. The DTI studies also revealed a characteristic evolution of diffusion anisotropy in the cortex of the developing brain. This ability to detect changes in the organization of the brain during development will greatly enhance morphological studies of transgenic and knockout models of cortical dysfunction. Magn Reson Med 46:18–23, 2001. © 2001 Wiley-Liss, Inc.