Friday, May 11, 2012

Stopping Power and the Bragg Peak

Proton therapy is becoming a popular treatment for cancer. Russ Hobbie and I discuss proton therapy in Chapter 16 of the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.
Protons are also used to treat tumors. Their advantage is the increase of stopping power at low energies. It is possible to make them come to rest in the tissue to be destroyed, with an enhanced dose relative to intervening tissue and almost no dose distally (“downstream”) as shown by the Bragg peak in Fig. 16.51. … The edges of proton fields are much sharper than for x rays and electrons. This can provide better tissue sparing, but it also means that alignments must be much more precise [Moyers (2003)]. Sparing tissue reduces side effects immediately after treatment. It also reduces the incidence of radiation-induced second cancers many years later.
Stopping power and range are a key concepts in describing how radiation interacts with matter, and are defined in Chapter 15.
It is convenient to speak of how much energy the charged particle loses per unit path length, the stopping power, and its range—roughly, the total distance it travels before losing all its energy. The stopping power is the expectation value of the amount of kinetic energy T lost by the projectile per unit path length. (The term power is historical. The units of stopping power are J m−1 not J s−1.)
To illustrate these concepts, I have devised a new homework problem. It’s a bit like Problem 31 in Chapter 16, but uses a simpler expression for the energy dependence of the stopping power, and focuses on how this leads to a Bragg peak. This problem occasionally appears on the qualifier exam taken by our Medical Physics graduate students at Oakland University.
Section 16.11

Problem 31 ½   Assume the stopping power of a particle, S = − dT/dx, as a function of kinetic energy, T, is S = C/T. 
(a) What are the units of C? 
(b) If the initial kinetic energy at x = 0 is To, find T(x) .
(c) Determine the range R of the particle as a function of C and To
(d) Plot S(x) versus x. Does this plot contain a Bragg peak? 
(e) Discuss the implications of the shape of S(x) for radiation treatment using this particle.
The stopping power often does fall as 1/T for large energies, as assumed in the above problem, but it rises as the square root of T for small energies (See Fig. 15.17 in Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology). To find a more accurate expression for S(x), try repeating this problem with

S(T) = C/(T + A/√T) .

Warning: I wasn’t able to find a simple analytical expression for S(x) in this case. Can you?

One can imagine a proton incident with such low energy that it lies entirely on the rising part of the stopping power versus energy curve. In that case, a good approximation for the stopping power would be simply

S(T) = B √T .

I was able to solve for the stopping power in this case, although the expression is cumbersome. Interestingly, for these low energy particles the range is now infinite, because as the particle slows down it loses energy more slowly. I suppose once the particle’s energy is similar to the thermal energy, the entire model breaks down, so I am not too worried about this result.

These considerations illustrate how we gain much insight by examining simple toy models. That tends to be the view Russ and I adopt in our book, which is at odds with the traditional view of biologists and medical doctors, who relish the diversity and complexity of life.

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