Positron emission tomography (PET) is a three-dimensional medical imaging technique that noninvasively measures the concentration of radiopharmaceuticals in the body that are labeled with positron emitters. With the proper compounds, PET can be used to measure metabolism, blood flow, or other physiological values in vivo. The technique is based on the physics of positron annihilation and detection and the mathematical formulations developed for x-ray computed tomography. Modern PET systems can provide three-dimensional images of the brain, the heart, and other internal organs with resolutions on the order of 4 to 6 mm. With the selectivity provided by a choice of injected compounds, PET has the power to provide unique diagnostic information that is not available with any other imaging modality. This is the first of five reports on the nature and uses of PET that have been prepared for the American Medical Association's Council on Scientific Affairs by an authoritative panel.