Imaging-based quantification of hepatic fat: methods and clinical applications

Radiographics. 2009 Sep-Oct;29(5):1253-77. doi: 10.1148/rg.295085186.


Fatty liver disease comprises a spectrum of conditions (simple hepatic steatosis, steatohepatitis with inflammatory changes, and end-stage liver disease with fibrosis and cirrhosis). Hepatic steatosis is often associated with diabetes and obesity and may be secondary to alcohol and drug use, toxins, viral infections, and metabolic diseases. Detection and quantification of liver fat have many clinical applications, and early recognition is crucial to institute appropriate management and prevent progression. Histopathologic analysis is the reference standard to detect and quantify fat in the liver, but results are vulnerable to sampling error. Moreover, it can cause morbidity and complications and cannot be repeated often enough to monitor treatment response. Imaging can be repeated regularly and allows assessment of the entire liver, thus avoiding sampling error. Selection of appropriate imaging methods demands understanding of their advantages and limitations and the suitable clinical setting. Ultrasonography is effective for detecting moderate or severe fatty infiltration but is limited by lack of interobserver reliability and intraobserver reproducibility. Computed tomography allows quantitative and qualitative evaluation and is generally highly accurate and reliable; however, the results may be confounded by hepatic parenchymal changes due to cirrhosis or depositional diseases. Magnetic resonance (MR) imaging with appropriate sequences (eg, chemical shift techniques) has similarly high sensitivity, and MR spectroscopy provides unique advantages for some applications. However, both are expensive and too complex to be used to monitor steatosis.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adipose Tissue* / diagnostic imaging
  • Adipose Tissue* / pathology
  • Diagnostic Imaging / methods*
  • Fatty Liver / diagnosis*
  • Humans
  • Image Enhancement / methods*
  • Image Interpretation, Computer-Assisted / methods*
  • Radiography
  • Ultrasonography