Positron Emission Tomography (PET)

A positron emission tomography (PET) scan is a specialized radiology procedure used by pediatric neurologists to aid in the diagnosis of a number of conditions. A viewing device is used in conjunction with a tracer drug distributed in the child’s circulatory system to document problems or abnormalities in a child’s brain and nervous system.

PET scans are effective in targeting specific parts of the body, and can give the neurology team a clear picture of neurological organs and tissue. Because of this, PET scans are typically used in diagnosis where a physical condition is believed to be a cause.

What Is a PET Scan?

A PET scan is a radiological method of creating a picture of a specific component of a child’s body. While the tests can be used in the diagnosis and treatment of a wide variety of problems in a child’s body, pediatric neurologists are able to directly study a child’s nervous system for the physical conditions that can cause a wide range of neurological disorders.

PET scans are often used in conjunction with other similar tests such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CAT) scans. While MRI and CAT scans give detailed physical information about the child’s body, a PET scan also provides functional information by charting the metabolism within it. This combined information about the child’s nervous system is able to give neurologists a clear picture to aid their diagnosis without the need for surgery.

How Does a PET Scan Work?

PET scans typically last a few hours and it’s normal for the child to also have an electroencephalogram (EEG) taken at the same time. A radiopharmaceutical medication is injected in the child’s bloodstream, which will allow the viewing device to take pictures of the internal tissue being studied. The viewing device is a large machine that the child rests on inside on a bed; the machine doesn’t touch the child.

A radiopharmaceutical is a drug that contains a tiny amount of radioactive material, called a tracer, that is picked up by the viewing device creating the image for the neurologist. The tracer is not present in large enough quantity to cause harm to the body.

The specific medication used for the PET scan is chosen based on the organ or area of the body being studied. For instance, radiological drugs that bind to blood glucose are often chosen when studying the brain, as glucose is used a great deal by the brain.

Because sometimes a PET scan does not result in good images, it may be necessary to reschedule another test. When preparing for a PET scan, it is important to create a calm and relaxing environment for the child and remind them to stay as still and quiet as possible during the scan.

Who Benefits from a PET Scan?

Children who experience the signs and symptoms of neurological disorders can benefit from receiving a PET scan if their condition is believed to have metabolic components.

For instance, though seizures in epilepsy are caused by abnormal electrical impulses in the brain, they can also be identified in a PET scan through a decrease in metabolic activity in the area the seizure is focused. This means that in epilepsy, PET scans can be particularly helpful in isolating the areas causing partial or localized seizures.

PET scans are also commonly used to help neurologists when searching for tumorous growths, and can be helpful when searching for functional brain damage as a result of an extended lack of oxygen or head and neck trauma.