Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) and Alzheimer's disease are sometimes difficult to differentiate clinically because of overlapping symptoms. Using diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) measurements of fractional anisotropy (FA) can be useful in distinguishing the different patterns of white matter degradation between the two dementias. In this study, we performed MRI scans in a 4 Tesla MRI machine including T1-weighted structural images and diffusion tensor images in 18 patients with FTD, 18 patients with Alzheimer's disease and 19 cognitively normal (CN) controls. FA was measured selectively in specific fibre tracts (including corpus callosum, cingulum, uncinate and corticospinal tracts) as well as globally in a voxel-by-voxel analysis. Patients with FTD were associated with reductions of FA in frontal and temporal regions including the anterior corpus callosum (P < 0.001), bilateral anterior (left P < 0.001; right P = 0.005), descending (left P < 0.001; right P = 0.003) cingulum tracts, and uncinate tracts (left P < 0.001; right P = 0.005), compared to controls. Patients with Alzheimer's disease were associated with reductions of FA in parietal, temporal and frontal regions including the left anterior (P = 0.003) and posterior (P = 0.002) cingulum tracts, bilateral descending cingulum tracts (P < 0.001) and left uncinate tracts (P < 0.001) compared to controls. When compared with Alzheimer's disease, FTD was associated with greater reductions of FA in frontal brain regions, whereas no region in Alzheimer's disease showed greater reductions of FA when compared to FTD. In conclusion, the regional patterns of anisotropy reduction in FTD and Alzheimer's disease compared to controls suggest a characteristic distribution of white matter degradation in each disease. Moreover, the white matter degradation seems to be more prominent in FTD than in Alzheimer's disease. Taken together, the results suggest that white matter degradation measured with DTI may improve the diagnostic differentiation between FTD and Alzheimer's disease.