How Does Positron Emission Tomography (PET) Work?

It is a powerful imaging technique used in the diagnosis of many diseases particularly cancer. This non-invasive test, popularly called ‘PET scan’ accurately images the body’s physiological/functional changes, while a Computed Tomography or ‘CT scan’ shows the structure of the anatomy where the changes are taking place. A highly sophisticated PET/CT imaging technique combines these two tests and thus provides detailed information about the presence or spread of disease and also identifies its precise location in the body. For patients undergoing treatment, a PET/CT scan can provide information on the extent of the progress made.

Basically, for PET scan a radiotracer molecule is first inserted into the human body, which comprises a radioactive medicine tagged to a natural chemical like glucose. This radiotracer finds its way into tissues that use the natural chemical. As the radiotracer breaks down inside the patient’s body, sub-atomic particles called ‘positrons’ are made that are detected in PET scan in the form of three-dimensional pictures. This imaging technique is helpful in diagnosing diseases like epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, cancers and heart ailments. Pregnant and lactating women should not have a PET scan as it could be harmful for the baby. The body’s vital functional aspects like blood flow, oxygen use, glucose metabolism etc., can be measured in PET scan that reveals metabolic changes occurring in tissues and organs.

Notwithstanding the tremendous advances in imaging of the human brain, the mysteries about its functioning and cellular alterations in disease and injury abound. There is a vast arena of ambiguity that surrounds the understanding of the human brain. Therefore, the search for devising newer and better technologies for seeing the inner confines of the human brain is on.

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