Magnetic particle imaging (MPI) is a promising medical imaging technique producing quantitative images of the distribution of tracer materials (superparamagnetic nanoparticles) without interference from the anatomical background of the imaging objects (either phantoms or lab animals). Theoretically, the MPI platform can image with relatively high temporal and spatial resolution and sensitivity. In practice, the quality of the MPI images hinges on both the applied magnetic field and the properties of the tracer nanoparticles. Langevin theory can model the performance of superparamagnetic nanoparticles and predict the crucial influence of nanoparticle core size on the MPI signal. In addition, the core size distribution, anisotropy of the magnetic core and surface modification of the superparamagnetic nanoparticles also determine the spatial resolution and sensitivity of the MPI images. As a result, through rational design of superparamagnetic nanoparticles, the performance of MPI could be effectively optimized. In this review, the performance of superparamagnetic nanoparticles in MPI is investigated. Rational synthesis and modification of superparamagnetic nanoparticles are discussed and summarized. The potential medical application areas for MPI, including cardiovascular system, oncology, stem cell tracking and immune related imaging are also analyzed and forecasted.