PET ScansPositron Emission Tomography (PET) is used to look at how your body uses substances such as glucose, ammonia, water and oxygen. Seeing how these molecules move through your body, and where they are being used, allows your doctor to check for anything unusual that might suggest the presence of disease.
Photograph of a PET scanning machine
How PET Scanning WorksPositron Emission Tomography (PET) is used to look at how your body uses substances such as glucose, ammonia, water and oxygen. Seeing how these molecules move through your body, and where they are being used, allows your doctor to check for anything unusual that might suggest the presence of disease. By tracking how your body uses glucose, a PET scan can produce images of cancerous tumours and help your doctor work out what treatment is best. Your body uses glucose - a type of sugar - for energy so cancerous tissue, which uses more glucose than normal body tissue, will show up as a bright area on the PET image. If oxygen is used as the tracking molecule, PET scans can be used to image brain activity and look at blood flow in the heart to detect coronary heart disease and other heart problems. To allow the molecules to be tracked they have radioactive isotopes attached to them, before being injected into your body. A radioactive isotope is an atom with extra neutrons in its nucleus. This causes it to be unstable, and eventually it will split, releasing positrons - positively charged electrons - in the process. When these positrons come into contact with electrons in neighbouring atoms they generate gamma rays. It's the gamma rays that the PET scanner actually detects and the machine can work out where in your body they have come from and therefore the location of the molecules being tracked. This information is then used to generate a series of images that use different colours or degrees of brightness to show the changing concentration and location of the molecule over time. The radioactivity of the isotope decreases with time, so to get a good series of images the PET scan has to be performed as soon as possible after you've been injected. Although having a PET scan means you are injected with a radioactive substance, the dose of radiation involved is about the same as you would be exposed to naturally over two or three years. This means that your body isn't damaged, although you wouldn't want to have lots of scans in a short period of time.
PET Scan ImagesBelow you will see three sets of PET scans of three people's brains.
Set of 6 PET images, showing heathly patient's brain
Patient with Alzheimer's Disease
Set of 6 PET images, showing brain of patient with Alzheimer's Disease
Patient with Brain Tumour
Set of 6 PET images, showing brain tumour