Residual brain viability, evaluated by (99m)Tc-ECD SPECT, in patients with suspected brain death and with confounding clinical factors

Nucl Med Commun. 2009 Oct;30(10):815-21. doi: 10.1097/MNM.0b013e32832ff5f8.


Background: In 1968, the Harvard criteria for brain death diagnosis were introduced in clinical practice. These include no movements or breathing, no reflexes, and flat electroencephalogram in the absence of confounding factors, including hypothermia, drugs, electrolyte, and endocrine disturbances. When confounding factors occur, confirmatory tests documenting the absence of cerebral blood flow, such as cerebral angiogram, transcranial Doppler sonography, computed tomography angiography, and nuclear techniques, are required.

Aim: The aim of this study was to evaluate the clinical value of single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) with technetium-99m (Tc)-ECD in the diagnosis of brain death in a cohort of patients with confounding factors. Fifty-two patients were studied between 1 January 2000 and 23 September 2008. The criteria for the request for Tc-ECD SPECT were sodic thiopental withdrawal after less than 24 h, unreceptivity and unresponsivity of brainstem reflexes, anesthesia in the last 24 h, hypothermia, anamnesis for barbiturate use, electroencephalogram artefacts, toxic state, and pediatric criteria. All patients underwent Tc-ECD SPECT using a dual-headed camera fitted with a high-resolution low-energy collimator. Images were reconstructed and processed according to standard procedures and interpreted qualitatively by two experienced observers.

Results: The presence of spots of residual brain viability was observed in 13 patients: 25% of our patient cohort. The patients with residual viability were younger (aged 30.92+/-17.28 years) in comparison with those with no viability (41.91+/-18.77 years, P<0.031). Considering the eligibility for transplantation, there were 12 of 13 patients in the residual viability group and 31 of 39 in the no viability group (P<0.0001). All patients with spots of brain uptake were monitored daily by Tc-ECD SPECT, and all of them reached the condition of empty skull after one or multiple studies. The opposition to organ donation was observed in six of 13 patients with spots of viable brain tissue and in three of 39 with no signs of residual viability (P<0.001).

Conclusion: In patients with confounding factors in whom brain death diagnosis is equivocal, Tc-ECD SPECT is a helpful and safe diagnostic approach, allowing a three-dimensional evaluation of cortical and brainstem viability. It guarantees an unequivocal diagnosis of brain death for patients who are potential candidates for organ donation. The persistence of viable spots of brain tissue was found in 25% of our patients and was more frequent in young patients. This affects the opposition to donation.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Boston / epidemiology
  • Brain Death / diagnostic imaging*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Confounding Factors, Epidemiologic
  • Cysteine / analogs & derivatives*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Organotechnetium Compounds*
  • Radiopharmaceuticals
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Tomography, Emission-Computed, Single-Photon / statistics & numerical data*
  • Young Adult


  • Organotechnetium Compounds
  • Radiopharmaceuticals
  • technetium Tc 99m bicisate
  • Cysteine