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Positron Emission Tomography (PET)

By

Mustafa A. Mafraji

, MD, Rush University Medical Center

Reviewed/Revised Nov 2023
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Positron emission tomography (PET) is a type of medical imaging called radionuclide scanning Radionuclide Scanning Radionuclide scanning is a type of medical imaging that produces images by detecting radiation after a radioactive material is administered. During a radionuclide scan, a small amount of a radionuclide... read more . By detecting radiation after a radioactive material is administered, PET creates images that can provide information about a tissue’s function and can help to identify abnormal tissues.

In PET, a substance that the body uses (metabolizes), such as glucose or oxygen, is labeled with a radionuclide Labeling with a radionuclide Radionuclide scanning is a type of medical imaging that produces images by detecting radiation after a radioactive material is administered. During a radionuclide scan, a small amount of a radionuclide... read more . The combination of this substance and the radionuclide is called a radioactive tracer. The tracer collects in specific tissues of the body. Generally, the more active the tissue (for example, the more glucose or oxygen it uses), the more tracer it collects and the more radiation it gives off.

The PET scanner contains several rings of detectors that record the radiation released. Data are recorded from many different angles. From these data, computers produce a series of 2-dimensional color images that look like slices of the body (called tomographs). The data can also be used to construct 3-dimensional images.

Procedure for PET

Before the procedure, people may be asked not to consume alcohol, caffeine, tobacco products, or any substances that might affect mental function (such as sedatives).

For PET, the radionuclide-labeled substance is injected into the person’s vein. The substances take about 30 to 60 minutes to reach the area being evaluated.

The person lies on a narrow, padded table that slides into the PET scanner, and the table is positioned so that area being evaluated is within the large circular opening of the PET scanner.

The person is asked to lie flat during most of the test, which may take 45 to 60 minutes. Depending on the area of the body being evaluated, the person may be asked to do certain activities, such as mental tasks to stimulate activity in the brain.

Uses of PET

PET is used to evaluate blood flow and activity in the heart and brain, as well as to detect cancer and other abnormalities.

Heart

Brain

Cancer

PET can show where a cancer is, where it has spread, and how it is responding to treatment.

About 80% of PET scans are done to help doctors evaluate cancer. These cancers include lung cancer Lung Cancer Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women. About 85% of cases are related to cigarette smoking. One common symptom is a persistent cough or a change in the character... read more Lung Cancer , colorectal cancer Colorectal Cancer Family history and some dietary factors (low fiber, high fat) increase a person’s risk of colorectal cancer. Typical symptoms include bleeding during a bowel movement, fatigue, and weakness... read more Colorectal Cancer , esophageal cancer Colorectal Cancer Family history and some dietary factors (low fiber, high fat) increase a person’s risk of colorectal cancer. Typical symptoms include bleeding during a bowel movement, fatigue, and weakness... read more Colorectal Cancer , head and neck cancer Overview of Mouth, Nose, and Throat Cancers Cancers of the mouth, nose, and throat develop in almost 65,000 people in the United States each year. These cancers are more common among men because males who smoke continue to outnumber females... read more , lymphoma Overview of Lymphoma Lymphomas are cancers of lymphocytes, which reside in the lymphatic system and in blood-forming organs. Lymphomas are cancers of a specific type of white blood cells known as lymphocytes. These... read more Overview of Lymphoma , and melanoma Melanoma Melanoma is a skin cancer that begins in the pigment-producing cells of the skin (melanocytes). Melanomas can begin on normal skin or in existing moles. They may be irregular, flat or raised... read more Melanoma .

PET also helps doctors determine whether enlarged lymph nodes in people with cancer are due to the spread (metastasis) of the cancer or to another abnormality.

Variations of PET

PET computed tomography (PET-CT)

PET is usually combined with computed tomography (CT) Computed Tomography (CT) Computed tomography (CT) is a type of medical imaging that combines a series of x-rays to create cross-sectional, detailed images of internal structures. In computed tomography (CT), which used... read more Computed Tomography (CT) . PET-CT provides detailed 2-dimensional images showing anatomy (via CT) and function (via PET). The two images (CT and PET images) can be viewed separately, or one may be overlaid on top of the other. Thus, this technique provides useful information about both anatomy and function and can help doctors identify abnormalities that affect anatomy and/or function.

This technique is particularly useful for cancers in body parts that have many different tissues close together, such as the neck and pelvis. It helps precisely locate the cancer and can detect early recurrences.

This test usually takes less than 1 hour.

Positron Emission Tomography-Computed Tomography (PET-CT)
VIDEO

Disadvantages of PET

The amount of radiation exposure from PET is similar to that from CT. When PET and CT are done during a single examination, the radiation dose is significantly increased.

Because radionuclides used in PET give off radiation for only a short time, PET can be done only if the radionuclide is produced at a nearby location and can be obtained quickly.

PET is relatively expensive and not widely available.

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