Early identification of patients at risk of space-occupying "malignant" middle cerebral artery (MCA) infarction (MMI) is needed to enable timely decision for potentially life-saving treatment such as decompressive hemicraniectomy. We tested the hypothesis that acute stroke magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) predicts MMI within 6 hours of stroke onset. In a prospective, multicenter, observational cohort study patients with acute ischemic stroke and MCA main stem occlusion were studied by MRI including diffusion-weighted imaging (DWI), perfusion imaging (PI), and MR-angiography within 6 hours of symptom onset. Multivariate regression analysis was used to identify clinical and imaging predictors of MMI. Of 140 patients included, 27 (19.3%) developed MMI. The following parameters were identified as independent predictors of MMI: larger acute DWI lesion volume (per 1 ml odds ratio [OR] 1.04, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.02-1.06; p < 0.001), combined MCA + internal carotid artery occlusion (5.38, 1.55-18.68; p = 0.008), and severity of neurological deficit on admission assessed by the National Institutes of Health Stroke Scale score (per 1 point 1.16, 1.00-1.35; p = 0.053). The prespecified threshold of a DWI lesion volume >82 ml predicted MMI with high specificity (0.98, 95% CI 0.94-1.00), negative predictive value (0.90, 0.83-0.94), and positive predictive value (0.88, 0.62-0.98), but sensitivity was low (0.52, 0.32-0.71). Stroke MRI on admission predicts malignant course in severe MCA stroke with high positive and negative predictive value and may help in guiding treatment decisions, such as decompressive surgery. In a subset of patients with small initial DWI lesion volumes, repeated diagnostic tests are required.