Cerebral malaria is the most severe complication of Plasmodium falciparum infection, accounting for 1 million deaths per year. We characterized the murine disease using in vivo magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) at 4.7 T, proving that ischemic edema is responsible for fatality. The aim of the present study was to identify early markers of experimental cerebral malaria using very high field conventional MRI (11.75 T). CBA/J mice infected with Plasmodium berghei ANKA were observed at an early stage of the disease, before the onset of detectable brain swelling and at the most acute stage of cerebral malaria. Herein, we report the first detection of damage to the optic and trigeminal nerves on T 2-weighted MRI. The trigeminal nerves appeared hypointense, with significantly reduced diameter and cross-sectional area. The optic nerves were hypointense and often not visible. In addition, the internerve distance between the optic nerves was significantly and progressively reduced between the early and severest stages. Cranial nerve injury was the earliest anatomic hallmark of the disease, visible before brain edema became detectable. Thus, cranial nerve damage may manifest in neurologic signs, which may assist in the early recognition of cerebral malaria.