Cerebral cortical development involves a complex cascade of events which are difficult to visualize in intact, living subjects. In this study, we apply diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to the evaluation of cortical development in human infants ranging from 26 to 41 weeks gestational age (GA). Apparent diffusion of water in cortex is maximally anisotropic at 26 weeks GA and anisotropy values approach zero by 36 weeks GA. During this period, the major eigenvector of the diffusion tensor in cerebral cortex is oriented radially across the cortical plate, in accord with a predominately radial deployment of its neuronal constituents. Values for the rotationally averaged water diffusion coefficient increase between 26 and 32 weeks GA, then decrease thereafter. These changes in DTI parameters are specific to cerebral cortex and reflect changes in underlying cortical architecture and formation of neuronal connections. Because of its correlation with tissue microstructure and non-invasive nature, DTI offers unique insight into cortical development in preterm human newborns and, potentially, detection of derangements of its basic cytoarchiteture.