Despite the fact that MRI has evolved to become the standard method for diagnosis and monitoring of patients with brain tumours, conventional MRI sequences have two key limitations: the inability to show the full extent of the tumour and the inability to differentiate neoplastic tissue from nonspecific, treatment-related changes after surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy or immunotherapy. In the past decade, PET involving the use of radiolabelled amino acids has developed into an important diagnostic tool to overcome some of the shortcomings of conventional MRI. The Response Assessment in Neuro-Oncology working group — an international effort to develop new standardized response criteria for clinical trials in brain tumours — has recommended the additional use of amino acid PET imaging for brain tumour management. Concurrently, a number of advanced MRI techniques such as magnetic resonance spectroscopic imaging and perfusion weighted imaging are under clinical evaluation to target the same diagnostic problems. This Review summarizes the clinical role of amino acid PET in relation to advanced MRI techniques for differential diagnosis of brain tumours; delineation of tumour extent for treatment planning and biopsy guidance; post-treatment differentiation between tumour progression or recurrence versus treatment-related changes; and monitoring response to therapy. An outlook for future developments in PET and MRI techniques is also presented.