Cause and magnitude of the error induced by oral CT contrast agent in CT-based attenuation correction of PET emission studies

J Nucl Med. 2003 May;44(5):732-8.


CT images represent essentially noiseless maps of photon attenuation at a range of 40-140 keV. Current dual-modality PET/CT scanners transform them into attenuation coefficients at 511 keV and use these for PET attenuation correction. The proportional scaling algorithms hereby used account for the different properties of soft tissue and bone but are not prepared to handle material with other attenuation characteristics, such as oral CT contrast agents. As a consequence, CT-based attenuation correction in the presence of an oral contrast agent results in erroneous PET standardized uptake values (SUVs). The present study assessed these errors with phantom measurements and patient data.

Methods: Two oral CT contrast agents were imaged at 3 different concentrations in dual-modality CT and PET transmission studies to investigate their attenuation properties. The SUV error due to the presence of contrast agent in CT-based attenuation correction was estimated in 10 patients with gastrointestinal tumors as follows. The PET data were attenuation corrected on the basis of the original contrast-enhanced CT images, resulting in PET images with distorted SUVs. A second reconstruction used modified CT images wherein the CT numbers representing contrast agent had been replaced by CT values producing approximately the right PET attenuation coefficients. These CT values had been derived from the data of 10 patients imaged without a CT contrast agent. The SUV error, defined as the difference between both sets of SUV images, was evaluated in regions with oral CT contrast agent, in tumor, and in reference tissue.

Results: The oral CT contrast agents studied increased the attenuation for 511-keV photons minimally, even at the highest concentrations found in the patients. For a CT value of 500 Hounsfield units, the proportional scaling algorithm therefore overestimated the PET attenuation coefficient by 26.2%. The resulting SUV error in the patient studies was highest in regions containing CT contrast agent (4.4% +/- 2.8%; maximum, 11.3%), whereas 1.2% +/- 1.1% (maximum, 4.1%) was found in tumors, and 0.6% +/- 0.7% was found in the reference.

Conclusion: The use of oral contrast agents in CT has only a small effect on the SUV, and this small effect does not appear to be medically significant.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Oral
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Contrast Media / adverse effects*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Phantoms, Imaging
  • Tomography, Emission-Computed*


  • Contrast Media