Cartilage pathology in rabbit knees was monitored by noninvasive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and evaluated using morphometric histologic measurements. Infusion of rabbit knees with the cytokine interleukin 1 induces cartilage degradation and inflammation. A miniosmotic pump was implanted subcutaneously to deliver interleukin 1 through a polyethylene catheter inserted into the rabbit knee. Rabbit knees were imaged using MRI and prepared for histologic examination at 5 and 12 days after chronic infusion of interleukin 1. MRI obtained 0.7-mm sections for three-dimensional reconstruction of cartilage image. Cartilage deterioration near the site of infusion was visible on MRI. MRI measurements indicated a reduction in cartilage thickness. Histology revealed a loss of staining of cartilage matrix proteoglycan, synovial hypertrophy, and perichondral bone resorption. Morphometric analysis of cartilage histology indicated a reduction in both cellularity (chondrocytes/m mu 2 area) and cell to matrix area ratio. These observations suggest that a loss of proteoglycan, an early event in cartilage degeneration, can be detected by MRI.