BACKGROUND: The Whitehall II (WHII) study of British civil servants provides a unique source of longitudinal data to investigate key factors hypothesized to affect brain health and cognitive ageing. This paper introduces the multi-modal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) protocol and cognitive assessment designed to investigate brain health in a random sample of 800 members of the WHII study. METHODS/DESIGN: A total of 6035 civil servants participated in the WHII Phase 11 clinical examination in 2012-2013. A random sample of these participants was included in a sub-study comprising an MRI brain scan, a detailed clinical and cognitive assessment, and collection of blood and buccal mucosal samples for the characterisation of immune function and associated measures. Data collection for this sub-study started in 2012 and will be completed by 2016. The participants, for whom social and health records have been collected since 1985, were between 60-85 years of age at the time the MRI study started. Here, we describe the pre-specified clinical and cognitive assessment protocols, the state-of-the-art MRI sequences and latest pipelines for analyses of this sub-study. DISCUSSION: The integration of cutting-edge MRI techniques, clinical and cognitive tests in combination with retrospective data on social, behavioural and biological variables during the preceding 25 years from a well-established longitudinal epidemiological study (WHII cohort) will provide a unique opportunity to examine brain structure and function in relation to age-related diseases and the modifiable and non-modifiable factors affecting resilience against and vulnerability to adverse brain changes.