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What is a brain scan?

A brain scan 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.

Pictures of your child's brain are obtained after a radiopharmaceutical is injected into your child's veins. A common radiopharmaceutical used for brain scan is technetium-99m neurolite. 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 scan be needed?

A brain scan 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 scan?

  • 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 scan 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 Boston 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 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 approximately one hour.

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

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 scan?

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

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 imaging room.
  • Your child will lay on the table and a large camera will be positioned above and underneath him/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 imaging will need to be repeated.
  • The brain scan imaging will take approximately 30 minutes.

Will my child feel anything during a brain scan?

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 Band-Aid 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 scan 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. It is safe for you to be in the imaging room with your child if you are pregnant or nursing.

What happens after the brain scan?

Once the brain scan 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 Boston 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 scan?

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

How Boston Children's Hospital approaches a brain scan

Our Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging Program is committed to providing a safe, comfortable, and child-friendly atmosphere with:

  • Specialized nuclear medicine physicians with expertise in interpreting brain scans 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 achievable while assuring high image quality

Brain Scan | Programs & Services