Nuclear medicine and molecular imaging are transforming the medical field. So how, exactly, do they work?
A signal-producing imaging agent like a radiopharmaceutical or probe is introduced into the body. The probes are injected and accumulate in an organ or on specific cells. The probe’s signals are received by an imaging equipment, which creates detailed images. Cell activity and biological processes can be visualized and also measured.
An imaging agent is comprised of a radiotracer—a small amount of radioactive material. They produce a signal that can be detected by a positron emission tomography (PET) scanner or gamma camera.
One of the most significant diagnostic imaging tools is PET imaging with the radiotracer FDG. FDC is similar to glucose (sugar). It’s a compound that accumulates in areas of the body that use glucose at a high rate. When FDG is injected into a patient’s bloodstream and given time to accumulate, a PET scanner captures images that show how the radiotracer has been distributed throughout the body. The FDG levels help determine if abnormalities are present. High FDG levels show up in highly active cancer cells. Brain cells affected by dementia will consumer smaller amounts of glucose or a lower FDG uptake.
There are other PET radiotracers used besides FDG. Plus, most PET studies are combined with CT studies which makes it easier to locate areas of abnormal cell activity.
PET is great for diagnosing cancer and determining the extent and severity of the cancer, as well as detecting a recurrence of cancer. It’s also effective in detecting blockages in coronary arteries and heart function following a heart attack. It can also be used to detect dementia and cognitive decline. When combined with amyloid imaging agents, it can reveal the location and amount of amyloid plaque in the brain, which can help with the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.
Single-Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT)
Another common imaging procedure that involves the injection of a radiotracer into a patient’s bloodstream is SPECT Imaging. Again, the radiotracer accumulates in a specific organ that’s targeted, or it attaches to specific cells. A gamma camera rotates around the patient and collects data that then creates 3D images of radiotracer distribution. This provides vital information about organ function and blood flow. SPECT studies, like PET studies, are combined with CT studies.
SPECT studies are used to detect blockages in coronary arteries. It can determine both muscle damage due to a heart attack and if the heart is pumping blood adequately. SPECT is also good for detecting dementia and identifying areas of the brain involved in seizures. It can identify the location and cause of a stroke, as well as the areas of the brain that are at risk following a stroke.
Both SPECT and PET are being used by researchers to get new insights into the biology of drug addiction, neurological disorders and psychiatric disease.
As researchers continue to work with SPECT and PET Scans in nuclear medicine and molecular imaging, advances are made in the detection, diagnosis, treatment and monitoring of disease. Medicare and private insurance companies are already covering the cost for many of these imaging procedures, as well.
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Meet the author: Vikki Harmonay