BACKGROUND: This study sought to assess white matter density in patients and relatives with histories of bipolar disorder and/or schizophrenia. METHODS: Subjects included those with schizophrenia from families affected by schizophrenia alone, those with bipolar disorder from families affected by bipolar disorder alone and those with bipolar disorder from families affected by both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Unaffected relatives of the three patient groups were also recruited. Subjects underwent an MRI brain scan which was analyzed using a white-matter optimized technique. RESULTS: Subjects with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder showed reduced white matter density in the anterior limb of the internal capsule which was not found in unaffected relatives. Reductions were found in frontal subgyral white matter density in affected subjects with a family history of schizophrenia only. CONCLUSIONS: Abnormal anterior internal capsule white matter may provide a structural substrate for both disorders.