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Medical Research

BNL medical pavilion, circa 1961.

Brookhaven's original mission of research in nuclear sciences naturally led to the development of radioisotopes for medical applications. The Laboratory's early years yielded such standards in health care as technetium-99m, which can be used to image almost any organ in the body and is now used in more than 13 million nuclear medicine procedures in the U.S. each year. This tracer was developed at the Brookhaven Graphite Research Reactor.

In 1988, Suresh Srivastava (right) and his colleagues patented an easy-to-use kit that attaches technetium-99m to red blood cells so doctors can see blood movement through the heart and other organs. By the mid-1990s, the Brookhaven kit was being used worldwide in more than 2 million such procedures per year.

Treating Parkinson's Disease

Another major medical advance, L-dopa for the treatment of Parkinson's disease, evolved from a 1960s Brookhaven program that used radioisotopes to study the relationship between trace elements and neurological diseases. Parkinson's disease is a degenerative brain disorder causing trembling limbs and sometimes incapacity. Early on, Brookhaven studies showed L-dopa treatments resulted in relief of symptoms in mild cases of the disease and striking improvements in patients with moderately advanced cases. By the 1970s, the Food and Drug Administration released L-dopa for general use by physicians.

Measuring the health of the heart

Millions of patients worldwide have undergone heart stress tests. But only a few know that these tests use thallium-201, a radioisotope developed at Brookhaven's 60-inch Cyclotron facility (above). Thallium-201 concentrates mostly in the heart muscle, so doctors with an isotope camera can measure its distribution there. The radioisotope can be injected into the bloodstream of a critically ill heart attack victim, allowing safe and efficient diagnosis of heart damage. It can be used to detect the early stages of heart disease.

Relieving the pain of cancer

When cancer spreads to the bone, the excruciating pain that results is usually relieved only by continual and heavy sedation. To provide an alternative to sedation, Brookhaven researchers used the High Flux Beam Reactor to develop a radioactive compound called tin-117m DPTA. In the first clinical trials in the mid 1990s, about 80 percent of the patients using the radioisotope experienced some pain relief and 20 percent became almost pain-free.

PET - a window into the body

PET III, ca. 1977In the past three decades, Brookhaven has helped pioneer development of a powerful medical imaging technique known as positron emission tomography, or "PET." This technology has since provided a view of the body's inner workings for doctors treating millions of patients and performing medical research worldwide. In fact, a Brookhaven-developed radiotracer, a form of glucose called 18-FDG, is now routinely used for cancer diagnosis in almost every PET center in the world.

Addiction research

At Brookhaven's Center for Translational Neuroimaging, researchers have studied the effects of drugs of abuse on the human brain. In the early 1990s Brookhaven scientists were the first to report that people addicted to cocaine, alcohol and heroin have reduced activity of their brain dopamine system, indicating an under-stimulated reward system. This finding has also been shown to apply to methamphetamine abusers as well as people suffering from obesity. Research at Brookhaven has suggested new approaches to treating addiction, the world's foremost public health problem. See results of current studies in this area.


Did you know?

By looking at how the human brain responds to “fullness” messages sent to the brain, BNL scientist Gene-Jack Wang (below) has identified brain circuits that motivate the desire to overeat in the obese -- the same circuits that cause addicted individuals to crave drugs.


In 1961, BNL chemists studied how to detect small brain tumors by analyzing the decay of radioactive material injected into the bloodstream and absorbed by the tumor. BNL's Instrumentation Division built this detector array. In the 1970s, BNL researchers found a way to reconstruct the detector data into an image of the working brain. This work was an important step toward the modern PET scanner.


Research on L-dopa to treat Parkinson's disease was begun at BNL by George Cotzias (below) in the 1960s. While no cure is yet known, L-dopa has helped many patients become self-reliant. During treatment with L-dopa in 1967, this patient was once again able to knit.


During 25 years of tests, BNL's Lewis Dahl discovered that high salt intake was more dangerous in youth, and recommended that no salt should be added to baby foods. He also showed that a person's genetic background greatly affects their susceptibility to hypertension from salt.


Nora Volkow, current Director of the Nat'l Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), is the former BNL Associate Director for Life Sciences who spent over 15 years at Brookhaven using PET technology to investigate the physical causes of addiction in the human brain.