Phenobarbital-enhanced hepatobiliary scintigraphy in the diagnosis of biliary atresia: two decades of experience at a tertiary center

Pediatr Radiol. 2013 Oct;43(10):1365-75. doi: 10.1007/s00247-013-2704-3. Epub 2013 May 11.


Background: Hepatobiliary scintigraphy is highly sensitive for diagnosing biliary atresia; however, its specificity has varied in the literature from 35% to 97%.

Objective: The purpose of this study was to re-evaluate the accuracy of phenobarbital-enhanced hepatobiliary scintigraphy in differentiating biliary atresia from other causes of neonatal cholestasis.

Materials and methods: We retrospectively reviewed all hepatobiliary scans of infants with cholestasis at our institution from December 1990 to May 2011. Per our routine protocol the scans were obtained after pretreatment with phenobarbital (5 mg/kg/day for 5 days) to achieve a serum level of ≥15 mcg/ml. Normal hepatic uptake with no biliary excretion by 24 h was considered consistent with biliary atresia.

Results: One hundred eighty-six infants with 210 hepatobiliary scans composed the study group. Forty-three (23%) infants had the final diagnosis of biliary atresia. Hepatobiliary scintigraphy was 100% sensitive, 93% specific and 94.6% accurate in diagnosing biliary atresia. Of the 186, 39/111 (35.1%) term and 2/68 (2.9%) preterm infants had biliary atresia; two of seven children with unknown gestational age also had biliary atresia. Other diagnoses included neonatal hepatitis, total parenteral nutrition cholestasis, Alagille syndrome, cystic fibrosis, choledochal cyst, hypothyroidism, alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency and persistent cholestasis of unknown etiology.

Conclusion: Phenobarbital-enhanced hepatobiliary scintigraphy is highly accurate in differentiating biliary atresia from other causes of neonatal cholestasis. Biliary atresia is rare in premature infants.

MeSH terms

  • Biliary Atresia / diagnostic imaging*
  • Biliary Atresia / epidemiology*
  • Causality
  • Cholestasis / diagnostic imaging*
  • Cholestasis / epidemiology*
  • District of Columbia / epidemiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Enhancement / methods*
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Phenobarbital*
  • Prevalence
  • Radionuclide Imaging
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Risk Factors
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Tertiary Care Centers / statistics & numerical data


  • Phenobarbital