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Background White matter abnormalities (WMAs) pose a diagnostic challenge when trying to establish etiologic diagnoses. During childhood and adult years, genetic disorders, metabolic disorders and acquired conditions are included in differential diagnoses. To assist clinicians and radiologists, a structured algorithm using cranial magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has been recommended to aid in establishing working diagnoses that facilitate appropriate biochemical and genetic investigations. This retrospective pilot study investigated the validity and diagnostic utility of this algorithm when applied to white matter signal abnormalities (WMSAs) reported on imaging studies of patients seen in our clinics. Methods The MRI algorithm was applied to 31 patients selected from patients attending the neurometabolic/neurogenetic/metabolic/neurology clinics at a tertiary care hospital. These patients varied in age from 5 months to 79 years old, and were reported to have WMSAs on cranial MRI scans. Twenty-one patients had confirmed WMA diagnoses and 10 patients had non-specific WMA diagnoses (etiology unknown). Two radiologists, blinded to confirmed diagnoses, used clinical abstracts and the WMSAs present on patient MRI scans to classify possible WMA diagnoses utilizing the algorithm. Results The MRI algorithm displayed a sensitivity of 100%, a specificity of 30.0% and a positive predicted value of 74.1%. Cohen's kappa statistic for inter-radiologist agreement was 0.733, suggesting "good" agreement between radiologists. Conclusions Although a high diagnostic utility was not observed, results suggest that this MRI algorithm has promise as a clinical tool for clinicians and radiologists. We discuss the benefits and limitations of this approach.