What Is Positron Emission Tomography?

Positron emission tomography (PET) is a nuclear medicine, functional imaging technique that is used to observe metabolic processes in the body. The system detects pairs of gamma rays emitted indirectly by a positron-emitting radionuclide (tracer), which is introduced into the body on a biologically active molecule.

Three-dimensional images of tracer concentration within the body are then constructed by computer analysis. In modern PET-CT scanners, three dimensional imaging is often accomplished with the aid of a CT X-ray scan performed on the patient during the same session, in the same machine.

If the biologically active molecule chosen for PET is fludeoxyglucose (FDG), an analogue of glucose, the concentrations of tracer imaged will indicate tissue metabolic activity as it corresponds to the regional glucose uptake. Use of this tracer to explore the possibility of cancer metastasis (i.e., spreading to other sites) is the most common type of PET scan in standard medical care (90% of current scans).

However, on a minority basis, many other radioactive tracers are used in PET to image the tissue concentration of other types of molecules of interest. One of the disadvantages of PET scanners is their operating cost.

Positron Emission Tomography Uses

Positron emission tomography is both a medical and research tool. It is used heavily in clinical oncology (medical imaging of tumors and the search for metastases), and for clinical diagnosis of certain diffuse brain diseases such as those causing various types of dementias. PET is also an important research tool to map normal human brain and heart function, and support drug development.

PET is also used in pre-clinical studies using animals, where it allows repeated investigations into the same subjects. This is particularly valuable in cancer research, as it results in an increase in the statistical quality of the data (subjects can act as their own control) and substantially reduces the numbers of animals required for a given study.

Alternative methods of scanning include x-ray computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), ultrasound and single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT).

While some imaging scans such as CT and MRI isolate organic anatomic changes in the body, PET and SPECT are capable of detecting areas of molecular biology detail (even prior to anatomic change). PET scanning does this using radiolabelled molecular probes that have different rates of uptake depending on the type and function of tissue involved. Changing of regional blood flow in various anatomic structures (as a measure of the injected positron emitter) can be visualized and relatively quantified with a PET scan.

PET imaging is best performed using a dedicated positron emission tomography scanner. However, it is possible to acquire PET images using a conventional dual-head gamma camera fitted with a coincidence detector.

The quality of gamma-camera PET is considerably lower, and acquisition is slower. However, for institutions with low demand for PET, this may allow on-site imaging, instead of referring patients to another center, or relying on a visit by a mobile scanner.

PET is a valuable technique for some diseases and disorders, because it is possible to target the radio-chemicals used for particular bodily functions.



brain PET scan

PET scan of the human brain

PET neuroimaging is based on an assumption that areas of high radioactivity are associated with brain activity. What is actually measured indirectly is the flow of blood to different parts of the brain, which is, in general, believed to be correlated, and has been measured using the tracer oxygen-15.

However, because of its 2-minute half-life, O-15 must be piped directly from a medical cyclotron for such uses, which is difficult.

In practice, since the brain is normally a rapid user of glucose, and since brain pathologies such as Alzheimer’s disease greatly decrease brain metabolism of both glucose and oxygen in tandem, standard FDG-PET of the brain, which measures regional glucose use, may also be successfully used to differentiate Alzheimer’s disease from other dementing processes, and also to make early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

The advantage of FDG-PET for these uses is its much wider availability.

PET imaging with FDG can also be used for localization of seizure focus: A seizure focus will appear as hypometabolic during an interictal scan. Several radiotracers (i.e. radioligands) have been developed for PET that are ligands for specific neuroreceptor subtypes such as raclopride, fallypride and desmethoxyfallypride for dopamine D2/D3 receptors, McN 5652 and DASB for serotonin transporters, Mefway for serotonin 5HT1A receptors, Nifene for nicotinic acetylcholine receptors or enzyme substrates (e.g. 6-FDOPA for the AADC enzyme). These agents permit the visualization of neuroreceptor pools in the context of a plurality of neuropsychiatric and neurologic illnesses.

The development of a number of novel probes for noninvasive, in vivo PET imaging of neuroaggregate in human brain has brought amyloid imaging to the doorstep of clinical use. The earliest amyloid imaging probes included 2-(1-{6-[(2-[18F]fluoroethyl)(methyl)amino]-2-naphthyl}ethylidene)malononitrile developed at the University of California, Los Angeles and N-methyl-[11C]2-(4′-methylaminophenyl)-6-hydroxybenzothiazole[10] (termed Pittsburgh compound B) developed at the University of Pittsburgh.

These amyloid imaging probes permit the visualization of amyloid plaques in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients and could assist clinicians in making a positive clinical diagnosis of AD pre-mortem and aid in the development of novel anti-amyloid therapies. [11C]PMP (N-[11C]methylpiperidin-4-yl propionate) is a novel radiopharmaceutical used in PET imaging to determine the activity of the acetylcholinergic neurotransmitter system by acting as a substrate for acetylcholinesterase.

Post-mortem examination of AD patients have shown decreased levels of acetylcholinesterase. [11C]PMP is used to map the acetylcholinesterase activity in the brain, which could allow for pre-mortem diagnosis of AD and help to monitor AD treatments. Avid Radiopharmaceuticals of Philadelphia has developed a compound called 18F-AV-45 that uses the longer-lasting radionuclide fluorine-18 to detect amyloid plaques using PET scans.


Numerous compounds that bind selectively to neuroreceptors of interest in biological psychiatry have been radiolabeled with C-11 or F-18. Radioligands that bind to dopamine receptors (D1, D2 receptor, reuptake transporter), serotonin receptors (5HT1A, 5HT2A, reuptake transporter) opioid receptors (mu) and other sites have been used successfully in studies with human subjects.

Studies have been performed examining the state of these receptors in patients compared to healthy controls in schizophrenia, substance abuse, mood disorders and other psychiatric conditions.


PET scanning with the tracer fluorine-18 (F-18) fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG), called FDG-PET, is widely used in clinical oncology. This tracer is a glucose analog that is taken up by glucose-using cells and phosphorylated by hexokinase (whose mitochondrial form is greatly elevated in rapidly growing malignant tumors).

A typical dose of FDG used in an oncological scan has an effective radiation dose of 14 mSv. Because the oxygen atom that is replaced by F-18 to generate FDG is required for the next step in glucose metabolism in all cells, no further reactions occur in FDG. Furthermore, most tissues (with the notable exception of liver and kidneys) cannot remove the phosphate added by hexokinase.

This means that FDG is trapped in any cell that takes it up, until it decays, since phosphorylated sugars, due to their ionic charge, cannot exit from the cell. This results in intense radiolabeling of tissues with high glucose uptake, such as the brain, the liver, and most cancers.

A few other isotopes and radiotracers are slowly being introduced into oncology for specific purposes. For example, 11C-labelled metomidate (11C-metomidate), has been used to detect tumors of adrenocortical origin. Also, FDOPA PET-CT, in centers which offer it, has proven to be a more sensitive alternative to finding, and also localizing, pheochromocytoma than the MIBG scan.

Small Animal Imaging

PET technology for small animal imaging: A miniature PE tomograph has been constructed that is small enough for a fully conscious and mobile rat to wear on its head while walking around. This RatCAP (Rat Conscious Animal PET) allows animals to be scanned without the confounding effects of anesthesia.

PET scanners designed specifically for imaging rodents, often referred to as microPET, as well as scanners for small primates are marketed for academic and pharmaceutical research. The scanners are apparently based on microminiature scintillators and amplified avalanche photodiodes (APDs) though a new system recently invented uses single chip silicon photomultipliers.

PET Scan Safety

PET scanning is non-invasive, but it does involve exposure to ionizing radiation.

18F-FDG, which is now the standard radiotracer used for PET neuroimaging and cancer patient management, has an effective radiation dose of 14 mSv.

The amount of radiation in 18F-FDG is similar to the effective dose of spending one year in the American city of Denver, Colorado (12.4 mSv/year). For comparison, radiation dosage for other medical procedures range from 0.02 mSv for a chest x-ray and 6.5–8 mSv for a CT scan of the chest.

For PET-CT scanning, the radiation exposure may be substantial—around 23–26 mSv (for a 70 kg person—dose is likely to be higher for higher body weights).


To conduct the scan, a short-lived radioactive tracer isotope is injected into the living subject (usually into blood circulation). Each tracer atom has been chemically incorporated into a biologically active molecule.

There is a waiting period while the active molecule becomes concentrated in tissues of interest; then the subject is placed in the imaging scanner. The molecule most commonly used for this purpose is F-18 labeled fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG), a sugar, for which the waiting period is typically an hour. During the scan, a record of tissue concentration is made as the tracer decays.

positron emission tomograph

The processing principles of a positron emission tomograph (PET) commonly used in cancer diagnostics.

As the radioisotope undergoes positron emission decay (also known as positive beta decay), it emits a positron, an antiparticle of the electron with opposite charge. The emitted positron travels in tissue for a short distance (typically less than 1 mm, but dependent on the isotope), during which time it loses kinetic energy, until it decelerates to a point where it can interact with an electron.

The encounter annihilates both electron and positron, producing a pair of annihilation (gamma) photons moving in approximately opposite directions. These are detected when they reach a scintillator in the scanning device, creating a burst of light which is detected by photomultiplier tubes or silicon avalanche photodiodes (Si APD).

The technique depends on simultaneous or coincident detection of the pair of photons moving in approximately opposite directions (they would be exactly opposite in their center of mass frame, but the scanner has no way to know this, and so has a built-in slight direction-error tolerance). Photons that do not arrive in temporal “pairs” (i.e. within a timing-window of a few nanoseconds) are ignored.

Localization Of The Positron Annihilation Event

The most significant fraction of electron–positron annihilations results in two 511 keV gamma photons being emitted at almost 180 degrees to each other; hence, it is possible to localize their source along a straight line of coincidence (also called the line of response, or LOR). In practice, the LOR has a non-zero width as the emitted photons are not exactly 180 degrees apart.

If the resolving time of the detectors is less than 500 picoseconds rather than about 10 nanoseconds, it is possible to localize the event to a segment of a chord, whose length is determined by the detector timing resolution. As the timing resolution improves, the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) of the image will improve, requiring fewer events to achieve the same image quality. This technology is not yet common, but it is available on some new systems.

Image Reconstruction

The raw data collected by a PET scanner are a list of ‘coincidence events’ representing near-simultaneous detection (typically, within a window of 6 to 12 nanoseconds of each other) of annihilation photons by a pair of detectors. Each coincidence event represents a line in space connecting the two detectors along which the positron emission occurred (i.e., the line of response (LOR)).

Modern systems with a higher time resolution (roughly 3 nanoseconds) also use a technique (called “Time-of-flight”) where they more precisely decide the difference in time between the detection of the two photons and can thus localize the point of origin of the annihilation event between the two detectors to within 10 cm.

Coincidence events can be grouped into projection images, called sinograms. The sinograms are sorted by the angle of each view and tilt (for 3D images). The sinogram images are analogous to the projections captured by computed tomography (CT) scanners, and can be reconstructed in a similar way.

However, the statistics of the data are much worse than those obtained through transmission tomography. A normal PET data set has millions of counts for the whole acquisition, while the CT can reach a few billion counts. This contributes to PET images appearing “noisier” than CT.

Two major sources of noise in PET are scatter (a detected pair of photons, at least one of which was deflected from its original path by interaction with matter in the field of view, leading to the pair being assigned to an incorrect LOR) and random events (photons originating from two different annihilation events but incorrectly recorded as a coincidence pair because their arrival at their respective detectors occurred within a coincidence timing window).

In practice, considerable pre-processing of the data is required—correction for random coincidences, estimation and subtraction of scattered photons, detector dead-time correction (after the detection of a photon, the detector must “cool down” again) and detector-sensitivity correction (for both inherent detector sensitivity and changes in sensitivity due to angle of incidence).

Top Image: Jens Maus. Typical PET facility equipped with an ECAT Exact HR+ Positron Emission Tomography scanner.

Bailey, D.L; D.W. Townsend; P.E. Valk; M.N. Maisey (2005)
Positron Emission Tomography: Basic Sciences
Springer-Verlag. ISBN 1-85233-798-2

Michael E. Phelps (2006)
PET: physics, instrumentation, and scanners
Springer. ISBN 0-387-34946-4