By combining two distinct imaging systems, PET-CT has become one of the most effective imaging procedures available today. PET-CT is an advanced nuclear imaging technique that combines molecular imaging known as Positron Emission Tomography (PET) and Computer Tomography (CT) into one highly sophisticated process.
Breaking it Down: How PET/CT Works
PET imaging or a PET scan is an advanced imaging system designed to reveal a wealth of information about the function of cells and tissues within the body. When combined with a CT scan focused on the structure of internal anatomy, a PET-CT scan can collect an unparalleled amount of data in a single session.
Positron Emission Tomography is a nuclear imaging technology that enables the visualization of metabolic processes within the body. Minimally invasive and typically painless procedures, these imaging scans use radioactive materials called radiopharmaceuticals, radiotracers or simply tracers. They can be injected into a patient’s vein, swallowed, or inhaled as a gas. The tracer is typically part of a glucose solution that can be absorbed or processed by the particular organs or tissues that are being examined. While inside the body these tiny tracer particles emit gamma rays that the finely tuned PET system’s detector panels can track and distinguish.
The system’s software is able to plot and triangulate the source of the gamma emissions to create a rendering of the bodily function that is being observed. By superimposing this PET data with images of internal body structure gained via Computed Tomography (CT) or Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), the system is able to create 3-D images of the tracer concentrations and their interactions with surrounding tissue. The data from these two different exams can be correlated and interpreted in one image, leading to more precise information and accurate diagnoses.
What’s a PET/CT Scan Like?
While the cost of a PET-CT scan can vary depending on region, healthcare system, type of scan and the anatomy being imaged – the process the patient will experience is similar. Usually performed on an outpatient basis, PET scans require the absorption of a radiotracer in one of the methods listed above. This takes about 60 minutes and possibly the use of an IV. Once the tracer is administered the patient is required to rest quietly on an examination table within the machine without moving or talking for approximately 30 minutes. If the PET and CT machines are separate, the patient will be moved for the CT scan.
How PET/CT Scans Are Used
In general, radiologists use PET-CT scans to locate and identify cancers and any areas of metastasis. Because damaged or cancerous cells often use more glucose than normal cells, doctors are able to determine the size and grade of a tumor by examining the rate at which the tumor is uses the tracker infused glucose solution.
In addition to detecting cancer, the system can also help doctors determine whether a cancer has spread in the body and assess the effectiveness of radiation or chemotherapy treatments by measuring the reductions in tracer solution metabolism or tumor volume. After treatment is complete, the system can be used to determine if cancer has returned.
- Tracking and determining the blood flow to the heart and other muscles
- Examining the effects of a heart attack or myocardial infarction on areas of the heart
- Identifying areas of the heart that would benefit from procedures such as angioplasty or coronary artery bypass surgery
- Evaluating brain abnormalities such as tumors, memory disorders, seizures and other central nervous system disorders
- Mapping normal heart and brain functions for diagnosis and research applications.
At most modern clinics today, almost all PET scans are performed on instruments that are combined PET and CT scanners in one machine. The combined PET-CT scans provide images that pinpoint the anatomic location of abnormal metabolic activity within the body while saving space and time. The combined scans have been shown to provide more accurate diagnoses than the two scans performed separately.
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About the author: Vikki Harmonay