What are the different types of tests to image the brain and spine?

There are many types of tests to image (take a picture of) your child’s brain and spine. These tests can check the shape and parts of the brain and spine. In people with certain genetic conditions, such as Myhre syndrome, there can be differences in these body parts. Some are not a problem while others might be important.

Types of brain and spine imaging tests

Type of test What the test does Radiation Contrast dye Important things to know
Ultrasonography Ultrasound can make pictures of the brain and spinal cord. This is most useful in infants. No No
  • An ultrasound examination of the brain and spinal cord is less useful in people who are older.
MRI with angiography (MRA)

An MRI refers to “magnetic resonance imaging.” This technique uses magnets to image internal organs, including the brain and spinal cord.

Pictures from an MRI are clearer than an ultrasonographic exam.

In order to take a picture of the blood vessels in the brain and spinal cord, we use MRA. Contrast is added to the MRI.

No Yes
  • Contrast is a commonly used and safe liquid that is injected into a vein through an IV. The contrast dye allows blood vessels to be seen better.
  • The IV needle hurts when it is placed, but it will be over quickly.
  • Some children might need sedation or anesthesia (medication to help them feel relaxed or fall asleep) before the test.
CT scan with angiography (CTA) A CTA is a type of X-ray that makes pictures of the heart and blood vessels in the brain and spinal cord. Yes, but a small, safe dose Yes
  • Doctors usually do not use sedation or anesthesia for a CTA. For children, Child Life Services can help relax and reassure them.

Did you know…?

John Hancock Child Life and Wellness Services at MGHfC can help your child before, during and after an imaging test. Ask your child’s care team if you would like to learn more about Child Life.

Rev. 7/2021. MassGeneral Hospital for Children and Massachusetts General Hospital do not endorse any of the brands listed on this handout. This handout is intended to provide health information so that you can be better informed. It is not a substitute for medical advice and should not be used to treatment of any medical conditions.