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Inside Story
(Information on how PET scans can help in the detection of diseases)

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(Article on how a PET scan works)

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(Information resource on PET scans)

(Information resource about PET scans and its uses)

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PET Scans Record the Chemical Activity in the Body.
What is a PET scan?

PET stands for 'Positron Emission Tomography'. PET scanning machines are very expensive and very few hospitals actually have them. PET scans were developed in the 1970s and therefore are still relatively new to the medical industry. A PET scan is often used alongside other scanning methods such as X-rays and MRI to help determine an accurate diagnosis of a suspected condition. PET scans are useful in diagnosing a health condition, assessing how well treatment is working and discovering how a condition is developing. An advantage that PET scans have over MRI scans is that they do not merely produce a picture of the studied area, but actually show how that area is working. The scans produce colour images that are three-dimensional. PET scans detect radiation inside the body which is given to the patient prior to the scan as a medicine called a radiotracer. Exposing your body to radiation may sound like a worrying prospect; however, the amounts administered are very small and will cause your body no harm. However, special advice will be given to you if you are pregnant or have a young baby to breast feed, as the radiation could be harmful for your baby if you are in close contact with them. The radiation that you are given prior to the scan does not stay in your body for very long and will in fact, degrade quickly and will be untraceable within a few hours. PET scans usually work on an out-patient basis, which means that you will not have to stay overnight at the hospital. What is a PET scan Used for?

PET scans, unlike MRI, do not produce clear images of the internal parts of the body. Instead, they show the chemical activity present in the area being studied which shows up on the image as colourful blotches. The colourful patches on the image can suggest to a doctor if tissue or organs are becoming diseased. PET scans are useful for detecting diseases in their early stages.

PET scans are particularly effective in detecting disease in the heart and in the brain. By performing a PET scan, doctors can look for signs of cancer and, if cancer has already been diagnosed, can determine the stage of the cancer.

Research is continually being conducted using PET scans and as a result, researchers are discovering new information on how the brain works. By comparing the PET scan results from the scans of both a depressed person and a person who is not depressed for example, researchers are able to compare the activity in the brain and are able to determine which parts of the brain are affected by depression.

PET scans can also detect the early signs of Alzheimer's disease before any physical symptoms are experienced by the patient.

What are the Risks of Having a PET scan? Although before having a PET scan, you are required to take a radiotracer - medicine with radiation in it - the procedure is still safe. The amount of radiation administered to you is very low and after a few hours, disappears entirely.

Although the person having the PET scan themselves will not be at risk, there are some potential risks for babies and small children who come in close contact with the person who has had the PET scan. Doctors will advise that the person having the scan should not be in close contact with babies or pregnant women. This is also true for their own baby if they plan to breastfeed, as this would bring them in close contact and potentially put the baby at risk.

PET Scanning Machines are Very Expensive and Only a Few Hospitals have One.
Why Would I have a PET scan?

If you are healthy, there may be opportunities for you to assist in medical research that involves the use of PET scans. Below is an example of what a PET scan study might try and determine:

Alzheimer's disease causes the cells in the brain to change by becoming shrunk and misshapen. Tangles also suffocate the healthy brain cells which could be a warning sign of Alzheimer's disease occurring.

A study may be conducted to compare the activity in the brains of healthy volunteers and the brains of patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease. By conducting a PET scan, researchers can see the difference of brain activity in the two sets of participants and through analysing the results, can work on ways to slow the effects of the disease. By participating in this kind of research, you would be contributing to the development of understanding of diseases such as Alzheimer's.

What can I expect when I have a PET Scan?

Before you have a PET scan, your doctor will give you instructions on what you can and what you can't do in the approaching hours leading up to the scan. This often involves not eating for six hours before the scan and, if having a heart scan, not drinking caffeine for 24 hours prior to your appointment.

You should be sure to advise your doctor on any medications that you are taking, including any herbal supplements. If you are pregnant, or have suspicions that you may be, it is also important that your doctor is aware of this before having the scan.

Prior to your scan, you will have a small amount of a radioactive substance (radiotracer) injected into your bloodstream. This radiotracer will travel to the area of your body that is being examined. This process usually takes between half an hour to an hour.

After this short waiting period, you will be positioned in the PET scanner where you will be made to feel as comfortable as possible. Throughout the scan, it will be necessary for you to remain as still as possible as any movement can distort the images produced. The scanning process can take up to 45 minutes.

When the PET scan is complete, you are usually free to leave the clinic and go about your day as normal. However, you will have to take in to consideration the points discussed earlier about avoiding close contact with babies and young children for a few hours afterwards.

If you are a healthy volunteer, then participating in a study that involves having a PET scan could help in the advancement of understanding of both the disease being studied and the PET scanning machine itself.