Despite improved survival, many preterm infants undergo subsequent neurodevelopmental impairment. To date, no neuroprotective therapies have been implemented into clinical practice. Erythropoietin, a haematopoietic cytokine used for treatment of anaemia of prematurity, has been shown to have neuroprotective and neuroregenerative effects on the brain in many experimental studies. The aim of the study was to assess the effect of recombinant human erythropoietin on the microstructural development of the cerebral white matter using tract-based spatial statistics performed at term equivalent age. A randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled, prospective multicentre study applying recombinant human erythropoietin in the first 42 h after preterm birth entitled 'Does erythropoietin improve outcome in preterm infant' was conducted in Switzerland (NCT00413946). Preterm infants were given recombinant human erythropoietin (3000 IU) or an equivalent volume of placebo (NaCl 0.9%) intravenously before 3 h of age after birth, at 12-18 h and at 36-42 h after birth. High resolution diffusion tensor imaging was obtained at 3 T in 58 preterm infants with mean (standard deviation) gestational age at birth 29.75 (1.44) weeks, and at scanning at 41.1 (2.09) weeks. Imaging was performed at a single centre. Voxel-wise statistical analysis of the fractional anisotropy data was carried out using tract-based spatial statistics to test for differences in fractional anisotropy between infants treated with recombinant human erythropoietin and placebo using a general linear model, covarying for the gestational age at birth and the corrected gestational age at the time of the scan. Preterm infants treated with recombinant human erythropoietin demonstrated increased fractional anisotropy in the genu and splenium of the corpus callosum, the anterior and posterior limbs of the internal capsule, and the corticospinal tract bilaterally. Mean fractional anisotropy was significantly higher in preterm infants treated with recombinant human erythropoietin than in those treated with placebo (P < 0.001). We conclude that early recombinant human erythropoietin administration improves white matter development in preterm infants assessed by diffusion tensor imaging and tract-based spatial statistics.