Using an improved hydrolysis method of inorganic salts assisted with water-bath incubation, ultrasmall water-soluble metal-iron oxide nanoparticles (including Fe(3)O(4), ZnFe(2)O(4) and NiFe(2)O(4) nanoparticles) were synthesized in aqueous solutions, which were used as T(1)-weighted contrast agents for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The morphology, structure, MRI relaxation properties and cytotoxicity of the as-prepared metal-iron oxide nanoparticles were characterized, respectively. The results showed that the average sizes of nanoparticles were about 4 nm, 4 nm and 5 nm for Fe(3)O(4), ZnFe(2)O(4) and NiFe(2)O(4) nanoparticles, respectively. Moreover, the nanoparticles have good water dispersibility and low cytotoxicity. The MRI test showed the strong T(1)-weighted, but the weak T(2)-weighted MRI performance of metal-iron oxide nanoparticles. The high T(1)-weighted MRI performance can be attributed to the ultrasmall size of metal-iron oxide nanoparticles. Therefore, the as-prepared metal-iron oxide nanoparticles with good water dispersibility and ultrasmall size can have potential applications as T(1)-weighted contrast agent materials for MRI.