Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) was used to study traumatic brain injury. The impact–acceleration trauma model was used in rats. Here, in addition to diffusivities (mean, axial and radial), fractional anisotropy (FA) was used, in particular, as a parameter to characterize the cerebral tissue early after trauma. DTI was implemented at 7 T using fast spiral k-space sampling and the twice-refocused spin echo radiofrequency sequence for eddy current minimization. The method was carefully validated on different phantom measurements. DTI of a trauma group (n = 5), as well as a sham group (n = 5), was performed at different time points during 6 h following traumatic brain injury. Two cerebral regions, the cortex and corpus callosum, were analyzed carefully. A significant decrease in diffusivity in the trauma group versus the sham group was observed, suggesting the predominance of cellular edema in both cerebral regions. No significant FA change was detected in the cortex. In the corpus callosum of the trauma group, the FA indices were significantly lower. A net discontinuity in fiber reconstructions in the corpus callosum was observed by fiber tracking using DTI. Histological analysis using Hoechst, myelin basic protein and Bielschowsky staining showed fiber disorganization in the corpus callosum in the brains of the trauma group. On the basis of our histology results and the characteristics of the impact–acceleration model responsible for the presence of diffuse axonal injury, the detection of low FA caused by a drastic reduction in axial diffusivity and the presence of fiber disconnections of the DTI track in the corpus callosum were considered to be related to the presence of diffuse axonal injury. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.