A medical contrast medium (or contrast agent) is a substance used to enhance the contrast of structures or fluids within the body in medical imaging. It is commonly used to enhance the visibility of blood vessels and the gastrointestinal tract.
Several types of contrast media are in use in medical imaging and they can roughly be classified based on the imaging modalities where they are used. Although other types exist, most common contrast agents work based on X-ray attenuation and magnetic resonance signal enhancement.
For radiography, which is based on X-rays, iodine and barium are the most common types of contrast media. Various sorts of iodinated contrast media exist, with variations occurring between the osmolarity, viscosity and absolute iodine content of different media. Non-ionic dimers are favored for their low osmolarity and toxicity, but have a correspondingly higher price attached to their use.
Gadolinium is used in magnetic resonance imaging as a MRI contrast agent. In the 3+ oxidation state the metal has 7 unpaired electrons. This causes water around the contrast agent to relax quickly, enhancing the quality of the MRI scan.
Microbubble contrast agents are used to aid the sonographic examination, specifically echocardiograms, for the detection of a cardiac shunt. These bubbles are composed of agitated saline solution, most of which are too large to pass through the lung capillaries. Therefore, the only ones that reach the left side of the heart pass through an abnormal connection between the two sides of the heart, a so-called right-to-left shunt. In addition, pharmaceutically prepared microbubbles are composed of tiny amounts of nitrogen or perfluorocarbons strengthened and supported by a protein, lipid, or polymer shell. These are small enough to pass through the capillaries and are used to increase the contrast in the left ventricle, improving the visualization of its walls. The drop in density on the interface between the gas in the bubble and the surrounding liquid strongly scatters and reflects the ultrasound back to the probe. This process of backscattering gives the liquid with these bubbles a high signal, which can be seen in the resulting image.