Six Kinds Of Brain Scans: How Doctors Peer Inside Your Skull (part 1)

March 18, 2010 at 4:22 pm Leave a comment

Results of an fMRI scan done by NASABrain-scans have always sounded a bit Science-Fictiony and mysterious to me.  I love the very idea of being able to peer inside someone’s head, analyze the activity, access their memories, know what they’re thinking.

Most of that, of course, is  still Science-Fiction.   Current technology can reveal a lot about our brains, but it can’t read our minds, reproduce our memories, or project copies of our thoughts onto a TV screen.

But what technology can do is pretty amazing, and it’s worth knowing a little about the methods involved – not only because your doctor may want to have your brain scanned one day, but because it helps in understanding the research being done on brain fitness, how diseases of the brain are diagnosed and understood, and because, well… it’s just generally really cool stuff!

First up?

EEG test The EEG
(Electroencephalogram)

EEG’s are the oldest of the brain-scanning technologies, having been used on humans in the 1920’s.    Through electrodes placed on the scalp,  the general electrical activity of the brain can be measured.  EEG’s provide very  limited and generalized information about the brain, but it’s still useful,  giving hints about which parts of the brain are most active during various tasks, as well as revealing the current brain state: focused, alert, excitable, sleeping, relaxed, and so on.  They can be useful in monitoring and diagnosing sleep disorders, seizures, brain injury, migrains, and are used in some biofeedback training, are painless, safe and inexpensive enough that serious brain-geeks often own home models that plug into their computers!

CAT scans
CAT Scan (Computerized Axial Tomography)

Developed in the 70’s and 80’s, CAT Scans are like .. well..  a spiral Xray on steroids!

They produce a series of cross-section images of the brain’s structure, allowing doctors to look for tumors, brain injury, blood clots, the effects of strokes, and areas of brain atrophy such as seen in Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.  CAT scans are frequently shown in movies and television, as are the results, which can look like an ordinary XRay, or be compiled by computer into an overall 3-D image of the brain.   But they reveal only the structure, and cannot measure activity levels, states of awareness or thoughts.

PET Scan PET scans
(Positron Emission Tomography)

Developed about the same time as CAT scans, PET scans help create a fuller picture of the brain’s health and function. While CAT scans show only the brain’s physical structure, PET scans show only activity in the brain.

To perform the test, mildly radioactive glucose is injected into the patient’s blood stream – this radioactivity is what’s detected by the machine.  Since activity in  the brain increases blood flow and glucose absorption in the  area being used,  they also show the highest levels of radioactive glucose during the test.   PET scans are widely used for detecting tumors, diagnosing and researching Alzheimer’s and other destructive diseases of the brain, identifying problem areas in cognitive function, blood flow issues,and even to examine the physical impact associated with mental illnesses like schizophrenia, substance abuse, and mood disorders

Pretty cool, isn’t it?
Even these three oldest of our brain-scanning technologies provide crucial information on the brain’s state, physical condition, activity levels and blood flow.

Next week, look for Part Two of this article, which will discuss the more modern scanning methods — methods that have lead to astounding leaps in our understanding of neurology, neuroplasticity and brain health and fitness.

Entry filed under: Supporting Science & Medicine. Tags: , .

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About This Blog


A healthy mind and brain is key to a healthy, active life. Come along for the ride as we explore the basics of brain health, with topics including:
  • Physical Exercise
  • Cognitive Training
  • Stress Management
  • Social Interaction
  • Sleep
  • Nutrition
  • A Sense of Purpose & Connection
Authored by Tori Deaux
Sponsored by Dakim Brain Fitness

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