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Positron Emission Tomography (PET) - Description, Risks

brain electron information disease

Positron emission tomography (PET) is a scanning technique used in conjunction with small amounts of radiolabeled compounds to visualize brain anatomy and function.

PET was the first scanning method to provide information on brain function as well as anatomy. This information includes data on blood flow, oxygen consumption, glucose metabolism, and concentrations of various molecules in brain tissue.

PET has been used to study brain activity in various neurological diseases and disorders, including stroke; epilepsy; Alzheimer disease, Parkinson disease, and Huntington disease; and in some psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and Tourette syndrome. PET studies have helped to identify the brain mechanisms that operate in drug addiction, and to shed light on the mechanisms by which individual drugs work. PET is also proving to be more accurate than other methods in the diagnosis of many types of cancer. In the treatment of cancer, PET can be used to determine more quickly than conventional tests whether a given therapy is working. PET scans also give accurate and detailed information on heart disease, particularly in women, in whom breast tissue can interfere with other types of tests.

A very small amount of a radiolabeled compound is inhaled by or injected into the patient. The injected or inhaled Positron emission tomography (PET) scan control study. Photograph by Jon Meyer. Custom Medical Stock Photo. Reproduced by permission. compound accumulates in the tissue to be studied. As the radioactive atoms in the compound decay, they release smaller particles called positrons, which are positively charged. When a positron collides with an electron (negatively charged), they are both annihilated, and two photons (light particles) are emitted. The photons move in opposite directions and are picked up by the detector ring of the PET scanner. A computer uses this information to generate three-dimensional, cross-sectional images that represent the biological activity where the radiolabeled compound has accumulated.

A related technique is called single photon emission computed tomography scan (CT scan) (SPECT). SPECT is similar to PET, but the compounds used contain heavier, longer-lived radioactive atoms that emit high-energy photons, called gamma rays, instead of positrons. SPECT is used for many of the same applications as PET, and is less expensive than PET, but the resulting picture is usually less sharp than a PET image and reveals less information about the brain.

Some of radioactive compounds used for PET or SPECT scanning can persist for a long time in the body. Even though only a small amount is injected each time, the long half-lives of these compounds can limit the number of times a patient can be scanned.



Kevles, Bettyann Holtzmann. Medical Imaging in the Twentieth Century. Rutgers University Press, 1996.


"Brain Imaging and Psychiatry: Part 1." Harvard Mental Health Letter, 13 (January 1997): 1.

"Brain Imaging and Psychiatry: Part 2." Harvard Mental Health Letter, 13 (February 1997): 1.

Faust, Rita Baron. "Life-Saving Breakthroughs: Innovative Designs and Techniques for Treating Heart Disease." American Health for Women, 16 (September 1997): 65.

Powledge, Tabatha M. "Unlocking the Secrets of the Brain: Part 2." BioScience, 47 (July 17, 1997): 403.

"Studies Argue for Wider Use of PET for Cancer Patients." Cancer Weekly Plus, (December 15, 1997): 9.

Lisa Christenson


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—One of the small particles that make up an atom. An electron has the same mass and amount of charge as a positron, but the electron has a negative charge.

Gamma ray

—Electromagnetic radiation originating from the nucleus of an atom.


—The time required for one-half of the atoms in a radioactive substance to disintegrate.


—A light particle.


—One of the small particles that make up an atom. A positron has the same mass and amount of charge as an electron, but the positron has a positive charge.

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