There still is much we do not understand about how the brain works and how alcohol affects it. Researchers are constantly discovering more about how alcohol interrupts communication pathways in the brain and changes brain structure, and the resulting effects on behavior and functioning. A variety of research methods broaden our understanding in different ways:
---BRAIN IMAGING - Various imaging tools, including structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), and positron emission tomography (PET), are used to create pictures of the brain. MRI and DTI create images of brain structure, or what the brain looks like. fMRI looks at brain function, or what the brain is doing. It can detect changes in brain activity. PET scans look at changes in neurotransmitter function. All of these imaging techniques are useful to track changes in the alcoholic brain. For example, they can show how an alcoholic brain changes immediately after drinking stops, and again after a long period of sobriety, to check for possible relapses.
---PSYCHOLOGICAL TESTS - Researchers also use psychological tests to evaluate how alcohol-related brain changes affect mental functioning. These tests demonstrate how alcohol affects emotions and personality, as well as how it compromises learning and memory skills.
---ANIMAL STUDIES - Testing the effect of alcohol on animals' brains helps researchers better understand how alcohol injures the human brain, and how abstinence can reverse this damage.