OBJECTIVES: To assess whether magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can identify pre-treatment differences or monitor early response in breast cancer patients receiving neoadjuvant chemotherapy. METHODS: PubMed, Cochrane library, Medline and Embase databases were searched for publications until January 1, 2012. After primary selection, studies were selected based on predefined inclusion/exclusion criteria. Two reviewers assessed study contents using an extraction form. RESULTS: In 15 studies, which were mainly underpowered and of heterogeneous study design, 31 different parameters were studied. Most frequently studied parameters were tumour diameter or volume, K(trans), K(ep), V(e), and apparent diffusion coefficient (ADC). Other parameters were analysed in only two or less studies. Tumour diameter, volume, and kinetic parameters did not show any pre-treatment differences between responders and non-responders. In two studies, pre-treatment differences in ADC were observed between study groups. At early response monitoring significant and non-significant changes for all parameters were observed for most of the imaging parameters. CONCLUSIONS: Evidence on distinguishing responders and non-responders to neoadjuvant chemotherapy using pre-treatment MRI, as well as using MRI for early response monitoring, is weak and based on underpowered study results and heterogeneous study design. Thus, the value of breast MRI for response evaluation has not yet been established. KEY POINTS: Few well-validated pre-treatment MR parameters exist that identify responders and non-responders. Eligible studies showed heterogeneous study designs which hampered pooling of data. Confounders and technical variations of MRI accuracy are not studied adequately. Value of MRI for response evaluation needs to be established further.