What can I Expect During a PET Brain Scan?

J.M. Densing
J.M. Densing
A PET brain scan may help doctors evaluate the extent of a tumor's growth.
A PET brain scan may help doctors evaluate the extent of a tumor's growth.

A positron emission tomography (PET) brain scan is a test used by medical professionals to take pictures of your brain. It's natural to feel slightly apprehensive about this test, but it's actually a relatively simple process. A radioactive substance is injected into the body and then you wait a while for it to be absorbed. Next you lie down on a table that slides into the imaging scanner and stay still while it records images of the brain; the radioactive substance highlights areas where there is metabolic activity. The images that result can help with diagnosis and evaluation of a variety of conditions including brain cancer.

A PET brain scan requires injecting a radioactive substance into your body in order to highlight metabolic activity on the scan.
A PET brain scan requires injecting a radioactive substance into your body in order to highlight metabolic activity on the scan.

When the PET brain scan is scheduled, your doctor will give you pretest instructions to follow. These include not eating or drinking anything but water for four to six hours before the scan, and no caffeine for at least 12 hours prior. It's important to tell the doctor about your medical history because some prescriptions may interfere with the scan. You may also want to leave any jewelry or metal objects at home since they will need to be removed during the test. It's a good idea to bring a book or other activity for the time you will spend waiting.

The PET brain scan results are a series of images of the brain.
The PET brain scan results are a series of images of the brain.

When you arrive for the PET brain scan, a small amount of radioactive material will be injected into the body usually through an intravenous line. The radioactive material is attached to a substance that the brain uses during metabolic processes, most often glucose. The resulting compound is called a radionuclide. You will probably feel the needle from the radionuclide injection; this is often the most uncomfortable part of the test.

A PET brain scan may help a neurologist assess a tumor and determine the next steps to be taken.
A PET brain scan may help a neurologist assess a tumor and determine the next steps to be taken.

The next step in a PET brain scan is waiting approximately one hour for the radionuclide to be absorbed and reach the brain. Usually there is a quiet area available where you can relax. You will be instructed to remove any jewelry or metal items and lie down on a table that slides into the PET scanning machine shaped like a round tunnel. It's important to lie still while the scanner records images; the length of the scan can last from 30 minutes to two hours. You won't feel the scanning process, although some people do complain of discomfort from the close quarters.

The PET brain scan results are a series of images of the brain. Areas where there is additional or unusual metabolic activity will be highlighted on the image results due to the presence of higher concentrations of the radioactive material. This can help doctors diagnose and evaluate a number of conditions including the extent of tumor growth associated with brain cancer or other brain disorders like Alzheimer's disease.

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Discussion Comments

bagley79

I have often heard of PET scans being done when someone had cancer, but never really knew the process they went through. I have had cat scans done before when I needed some tests done.

The doctors and staff are usually pretty good at explaining what is involved so you are not in for any surprises when you get there. You are usually a bundle of nerves no matter what, so it is good to know what the procedure involves ahead of time. Having someone there with you for moral support is also a big help.

SarahSon

I know PET scans can be very useful in helping the doctors know if cancer has spread or not. I know a boy who is struggling with a rare form of brain cancer. His symptoms started out with having trouble with one of his feet.

They have done several brain pet scans throughout the course of his treatment. Thankfully it is not a painful process, but scary for anybody, especially a young person. It is amazing when you think about all that can be seen from these type of scans.

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    • A PET brain scan may help doctors evaluate the extent of a tumor's growth.
      A PET brain scan may help doctors evaluate the extent of a tumor's growth.
    • A PET brain scan requires injecting a radioactive substance into your body in order to highlight metabolic activity on the scan.
      A PET brain scan requires injecting a radioactive substance into your body in order to highlight metabolic activity on the scan.
    • The PET brain scan results are a series of images of the brain.
      The PET brain scan results are a series of images of the brain.
    • A PET brain scan may help a neurologist assess a tumor and determine the next steps to be taken.
      A PET brain scan may help a neurologist assess a tumor and determine the next steps to be taken.