KidsMD Health Topics

Our Health Topics


  • Brain SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) is a diagnostic imaging technique that provides images of blood flow in the brain. It can detect changes in blood flow within the brain that cannot be seen with other imaging methods.

    How Boston Children's Hospital approaches a brain SPECT

    The Division of Nuclear Medicine at Boston Children's is committed to providing a safe, comfortable and child-friendly atmosphere with:

    • specialized nuclear medicine physicians with expertise in interpreting brain SPECTs in children of all ages

    • certified nuclear medicine technologists with years of experience imaging children and teens

    • Child Life specialists to help families prior to and during exams

    • equipment adapted for pediatric use, which means age-appropriate care for children

    • protocols that keep radiation exposure as low as reasonably achievablewhile assuring high image quality

    Contact Us

    Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging
    Boston Children's Hospital
    300 Longwood Avenue
    Boston MA 02115 
    617-355-7010  fax: 617-730-0623 

  • What is a brain SPECT?

    • A brain SPECT is a diagnostic nuclear medicine imaging exam that uses a radioactive substance to visualize brain function.

    • This imaging technique is sensitive and can detect changes in brain blood flow associated with seeing, hearing and thinking.

    • Pictures of your child's brain are obtained after a radiopharmaceutical is injected into your child's veins. A common radiopharmaceutical used for brain SPECT is technetium-99m.

    • Once the radiopharmaceutical is injected, it rapidly travels through the bloodstream and into your child's brain.

    • A special camera, called a SPECT camera or gamma camera, is used to take pictures of the brain.

    When might a brain SPECT be needed?

    A brain SPECT is frequently used to localize the source of epilepsy. Other conditions can also be diagnosed, but they are less frequent.

    How should I prepare my child for a brain SPECT?

    There is no special preparation needed for this test. Your child can eat or drink as usual.

    • It is helpful to give your child a simple explanation as to why a brain SPECT is needed and assure her that you will be with her for the entire time.

    • You may want to bring your child's favorite book, toy or comforting object to use during waiting times.

    • If MRI and/or CT Scans have been done at a facility other than Children's, please bring those images with you. The nuclear medicine physician will compare the MR and CT scan to the SPECT scan.

    • If your child's doctor has given you a requisition for the exam, please bring it with you. If we have to call the doctor's office to get the requisition after you have arrived for the appointment, this will cause a delay in performing the scan.

    • If your child is scheduled for sedation or if you think sedation is necessary (to hold still) and a nuclear medicine staff member has not contacted you, please call us at 617-355-7010 for specific instructions.

    You should expect your visit to last from one to one and a half hours.

    What should I expect when I bring my child to the hospital for a brain SPECT?

    When you arrive, please go to the Nuclear Medicine check-in desk on the second floor of the main hospital. A clinical intake coordinator will check in your child and verify his or her registration information.

    What happens during a brain SPECT?

    Obtaining a brain SPECT scan involves three steps: injection of the radiopharmaceutical, a waiting period and the brain SPECT scan.

    Injection of the radiopharmaceutical:

    • You will be greeted by one of our nuclear medicine technologists who will explain the scan in detail to you and your child.

    • A tiny amount of the radiopharmaceutical will be injected into one of your child's veins through a small needle.

    • Once the radiopharmaceutical reaches the brain, it will transmit signals (gamma rays) that can be detected from outside the body by the SPECT camera.

    Waiting period:

    • After the injection, your child must wait for 30 minutes to allow the radiopharmaceutical to get absorbed by the brain.

    The brain SPECT scan:

    • After the waiting period, the technologist will bring you and your child into the SPECT room.

    • Your child may be asked to change into hospital pajamas and will need to remove jewelry, eyeglasses and any other metal objects that could interfere with the scan.

    • Your child will lie on the table and a large camera will be positioned above her.

    • The camera will rotate once around your child's head as pictures are taken.

    • It is important that your child remains still during the imaging in order to obtain the best quality images possible. Motion will degrade the images and the test will need to be repeated.

    The brain SPECT will take approximately 30 minutes.

    Will my child feel anything during a brain SPECT?

    Your child may experience some discomfort associated with the insertion of the intravenous needle. The needle used for the procedure is small. Once the radiopharmaceutical is injected, the needle is withdrawn and a gauze bandage with adhesive tape is placed over the site of the injection. The area where the injection was given may be a little sore.

    Although the camera used to take pictures may appear large and intimidating, it does not touch your child.

    Is a brain SPECT safe?

    We are committed to ensuring that your child receives the smallest radiation dose needed to obtain the desired result.

    • Nuclear medicine has been used on babies and children for more than 40 years with no known adverse effects from the low doses employed.

    • The radiopharmaceutical contains a very tiny amount of radioactive molecules, but we believe that the benefit to your child's health outweighs potential radiation risk.

    • The camera used to obtain the images does not produce any radiation.

    What happens after the brain SPECT?

    Once the brain SPECT is complete, the images will be evaluated for quality by a nuclear medicine physician. If the scan is adequate, your child will be free to leave and resume normal activity.

    The tiny amount of the radioactive substance in your child's body will dissipate over the first 24 hours following the test and pass out of your child's body through urine or stool. Drinking plenty of water will help to flush the radioactive material from your child's body.

    One of the Children's nuclear medicine physicians will review your child's images and create a report of the findings and diagnosis.

    How do I learn the results of the brain SPECT?

    The nuclear medicine physician will provide a report to the doctor who ordered your child's brain SPECT. Your child's doctor will then discuss the results with you.

  • Safety

    Because nuclear medicine procedures involve small amounts of radiation, we are committed to ensuring that your child receives the lowest possible dose needed to obtain the high-quality images needed for accurate diagnosis and treatment.

    Our physicians and physicists are leaders in adjusting equipment and procedures to deliver low doses appropriate to children. We are part of the Image Gently Campaign and the Pediatric Imaging Council of the Society of Nuclear Medicine; we helped develop Image Gently guidelines so hospitals across the country can minimize children's exposure to radiation during medical procedures. We helped to write a brochure for parents available here.

    From the lab to the clinic

    Physicians and scientists in our research laboratories are working to develop new agents for the diagnosis and treatment of pediatric diseases. Our Small Animal Imaging Laboratory has a research PET scanner, called the microPET, which was the first of its kind to be installed at a pediatric hospital. The scanner helps scientists investigate mechanisms of disease and develop and refine new nuclear medicine imaging techniques.

    Image Fusion

    Nuclear medicine studies can be particularly useful when they are digitally combined with the anatomical images generated by computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Boston Children's Hospital is one of the few pediatric nuclear medicine programs nationwide that is routinely capable of electronically fusing nuclear medicine studies with images obtained from CT or MRI. In many cases, this gives a more complete assessment of the problems being investigated. For example, a neurologist can see the exact location in the brain where a seizure originated or an oncologist can determine which parts of a tumor are growing the fastest. Nuclear medicine studies that can be combined with MRI or CT include bone scans, brain SPECTs, PET scans, and rest-stress myocardial perfusion scintigraphy.

The future of pediatrics will be forged by thinking differently, breaking paradigms and joining together in a shared vision of tackling the toughest challenges before us.”
- Sandra L. Fenwick, President and CEO