What is Positron Emission Tomography?

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  • Written By: Emma Lloyd
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 17 July 2019
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Positron emission tomography, also known as a PET scan, is a type of diagnostic medical imaging technology that utilizes nuclear technology. A PET scanner is a large piece of medical equipment, shaped somewhat like a donut. The center of the scanner is a hollow tube-shaped hole in which the patient lies while the scanner operates.

PET technology uses radioactive tracers to examine metabolic processes within the body. In the case of cancer diagnosis, for example, the radioactive tracer is often a glucose solution. The uptake and metabolism of glucose is more rapid in malignant cells than in healthy cells, because cancer cells divide more rapidly and therefore use more energy. A PET scan can then detect those areas of the body where glucose uptake has been higher than normal. Different types of radioactive tracers are used depending on the disease or organ under examination.


Positron emission tomography is useful as a research tool, and has been used to map normal heart and brain function. PET is often used in cancer research, particularly in pre-clinical animal trials. One advantage of this is that the depth and breadth of information that can be obtained allows researchers to use fewer experimental animals in their work. Researchers can not only obtain detailed information, they can also obtain the information at several time points over the course of lengthy experiments. PET is also used in many other types of research. In pharmacology studies, for example, radiolabeled drugs are injected into animals, and PET scans are used to study how the drugs are metabolized and excreted.

Positron emission tomography is also used in diagnostic medicine. For example, this technology can detect tumors and determine where cancer has spread in the body, evaluate brain abnormalities, and examine blood flow to the heart. While this type of medical test is diagnostic in nature, it is also an important part of treatment for many diseases.

In the case of cancer, for example, positron emission tomography is commonly used for diagnostic purposes to determine the extent of cancer within the body. This type of cancer scan is also useful for evaluating a patient’s response to treatment. By comparing how extensive cancer is before and after a particular treatment, doctors can determine whether the treatment has been effective.

Positron emission tomography is often performed in conjunction with computer tomography diagnostic imaging. These two tests act synergistically, providing information that is more detailed than can be obtained by carrying out the tests separately. PET can also be carried out in conjunction with magnetic resonance imaging.



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