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May 2019

What Is Molecular Breast Imaging?

Molecular breast imaging (MBI) is a test similar to X-ray, CT, and ultrasound, but with an important difference. Those imaging procedures provide pictures of bones and soft tissue, but MBI allows health care providers to see what is happening inside the breast at a molecular and cellular level.

Female doctor talking with female patient


An MBI test is also called scintimammographya or breast specific gamma imaging [BSGI]). It’s not a screening method for breast cancer. I’s used as an additional screening option for  women who have dense breasts, to investigate abnormalities detected on a mammogram, or to clarify the results of an inconclusive mammography. A typical MBI test is an outpatient procedure that takes about 45 to 60 minutes total.

After the patient is injected with a small amount of radiation called a radiotracer, the technician places one breast at a time on a flat plate that is similar to a mammography machine. But an MBI machine includes special cameras that create images with the help of a computer. The breast is compressed, but not as tightly as for a mammography. Each image takes about 10 minutes to complete. 


MBI has several key benefits in addition to being safe, noninvasive, and mostly pain-free. An MBI test can:

  • Help providers decide whether a breast biopsy is needed, thus reducing the need for an invasive procedure

  • Be used in women who have dense breast tissue or breast implants

  • Find small abnormalities that are difficult for mammography to detect

  • Help providers diagnose breast cancer earlier and find its precise location

  • See if breast cancer has spread and how it should be treated

  • Assess a person’s response to specific medicines

  • Find cellular changes caused by cancer before CTs and MRIs can detect structural changes in the breast


No procedure is risk-free, and MBI has a few disadvantages. They include:

  • An allergic reaction to the radioactive compound injected before the test. These reactions are extremely rare and usually mild.

  • Exposure to a small dose of radiation. But no long-term side effects have been linked to the procedure.

Online Medical Reviewer: Godsey, Cynthia, MSN, APRN, MSHE, FNP-BC
Date Last Reviewed: 4/1/2019
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