Positron Emission Tomography (PET)
A very small amount of a radiolabeled compound is inhaled by or injected into the patient. The injected or inhaled 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.