A brain positron emission tomography (PET) scan is an imaging test of the brain. It uses a radioactive substance called a tracer to look for disease or injury in the brain.
A PET scan shows how the brain and its tissues are working. Other imaging tests, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) scans only reveal the structure of the brain.
A PET scan requires a small amount of radioactive material (tracer). This tracer is given through a vein (IV), usually on the inside of your elbow. Or, you breathe in the radioactive material as a gas.
The tracer travels through your blood and collects in organs and tissues. The tracer helps your health care provider to see certain areas or diseases more clearly.
You wait nearby as the tracer is absorbed by your body. This usually takes about 1 hour.
Then, you lie on a narrow table, which slides into a large tunnel-shaped scanner. The PET scanner detects signals from the tracer. A computer changes the results into 3-D pictures. The images are displayed on a monitor for your provider to read.
You must lie still during test so that the machine can produce clear images of your brain. You may be asked to read or name letters if your memory is being tested.
The test takes between 30 minutes and 2 hours.
You may be asked not to eat anything for 4 to 6 hours before the scan. You will be able to drink water.
Tell your provider if:
Always tell your provider about the medicines you are taking, including those bought without a prescription. Sometimes, medicines interfere with the test results.
You may feel a sharp sting when the needle containing the tracer is placed into your vein.
A PET scan causes no pain. The table may be hard or cold, but you can request a blanket or pillow.
An intercom in the room allows you to speak to someone at any time.
There is no recovery time, unless you were given a medicine to relax.
After the test, drink a lot of fluids to flush the tracer out of your body.
A PET scan can show the size, shape, and function of the brain, so your doctor can make sure it is working as well as it should. It is most often used when other tests, such as MRI scan or CT scan, do not provide enough information.
This test can be used to:
Several PET scans may be taken to determine how well you are responding to treatment for cancer or another illness.
There are no problems detected in the size, shape, or function of the brain. There are no areas in which the tracer has abnormally collected.
Abnormal results may be due to:
The amount of radiation used in a PET scan is low. It is about the same amount of radiation as in most CT scans. Also, the radiation does not last for long in your body.
Women who are pregnant or are breastfeeding should let their provider know before having this test. Infants and babies developing in the womb are more sensitive to the effects of radiation because their organs are still growing.
It is possible, though very unlikely, to have an allergic reaction to the radioactive substance. Some people have pain, redness, or swelling at the injection site.
It is possible to have false results on a PET scan. Blood sugar or insulin levels may affect the test results in people with diabetes.
PET scans may be done along with a CT scan. This combination scan is called a PET/CT.
Reviewed By: Alireza Minagar, MD, MBA, Professor, Department of Neurology, LSU Health Sciences Center, Shreveport, LA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.