The standard approach for the detection of prostate cancer -- prostate-specific antigen (PSA) screening followed by transrectal ultrasonography (TRUS)-guided biopsy -- has low sensitivity and provides limited information about the true extent and aggressiveness of the cancer. Improved methods are needed to assess the extent and aggressiveness of the cancer and to identify patients who will benefit from therapy. In recent years, there has been tremendous development of acquisition and processing tools for physiological and metabolic MRI techniques which play a potential role in the detection, localization and characterization of prostate cancer, such as dynamic contrast-enhanced MRI (DCE-MRI), diffusion-weighted MRI (DW-MRI) and/or proton MR spectroscopic imaging (1H MRSI). The standard protocol for prostate MRI without the use of a contrast agent involves multi-planar T1-weighted MRI, T2-weighted MRI and DW-MRI. This review discusses the potential role of MRI in the detection of prostate cancer, specifically describing the status of MRI as a tool for guiding targeted prostate biopsies and for detecting cancer in the untreated and treated gland. In addition, future areas of MRI research are briefly discussed. Groups conducting clinical trials should consider the recommendations put forward by the European Consensus Meeting, which state that the minimum requirements for prostate MRI are T1-weighted MRI, T2-weighted MRI, DCE-MRI (which involves the use of a contrast agent) and DW-MRI with a pelvic phased-array coil and propose the use of transperineal template mapping biopsies as the optimal reference standard. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.