What is Molecular Imaging?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 08 November 2019
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Molecular imaging is a discipline of medical imaging where people study activities within the body on the subcellular and cellular level to get a detailed picture of processes happening inside both healthy and ill patients. It is a noninvasive diagnostic and clinical tool. A number of universities worldwide have research programs in molecular imaging and work with teaching hospitals to provide this service to patients while they study it to learn more about how and where doctors can apply this technique.

In molecular imaging, people can use existing tools like ultrasound, tracers, light, and magnetism to generate detailed images of the inside of the human body. The focus is on very high resolution in the finished images so people can see not just general structures in the body, but activity occurring on a cellular level. For example, a neurologist can use a tracer to map signaling pathways in the brain for the purpose of learning more about apparent neurological deficits in a patient, to determine how and where signals are going awry.


Being able to view processes inside the body of a living patient is an important step forward for medical diagnostics. Molecular imaging can allow people to detect very minute changes and variations that may not be visible with less detailed studies of a patient; it can potentially allow a doctor to identify the early signs of a problem and provide treatment before it develops into a medical issue, for example. The level of resolution is also important for studying conditions that are difficult to learn more about through pathology and the analysis of specimens, like the spread of degenerative neurological diseases in living patients.

Doctors can use a variety of imaging techniques to obtain studies with the required level of detail and information, including both static and dynamic imaging. Taking pictures of processes inside the body as they occur can be very informative for treatment of a variety of conditions, like respiratory diseases. A doctor can use a tracer to watch how a patient breathes and to determine how much air penetrates the lungs and how efficiently the lungs use gas exchange to trade waste carbon dioxide from inside the body for oxygen in the air. This can help her understand a respiratory condition and develop a treatment plan.

This medical imaging technique owes its start to medical research conducted in the early 21st century. It is not always available at medical centers, and coverage through insurance is variable, as some insurance companies consider it experimental and preferentially cover established conventional imaging techniques. People concerned about accessing and paying for molecular imaging can discuss their options with a doctor.



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