University of Essex takes a fresh look at things with imaging technology
The ability to monitor brain damage in premature babies and predict how tumours will respond to treatment may soon become routine thanks to new optical imaging systems under development at the University of Essex.
Applications of the new technology, which is being jointly developed with University College London, also include investigating mental imagery in sport, and detecting the growth of blood vessels around tumours.
Optical tomography, which is the process of shining x-rays through an object or person to get an image of the internal workings of it, makes it possible to assess brain function in newborn and premature babies. A device developed at UCL measures the flight times of photons (electromagnetic radiation which make up light waves) across the head using ultra-short pulses of laser light. The information is then used to reconstruct 3-D images of blood volume and oxygenation. The optical images can be used to characterise how the brain develops and to detect abnormalities associated with brain damage.The mapping of tiny blood vessels that grow in number as a tumour grows is also possible using photoacoustic imaging. By imaging the oxygen levels in these blood vessels it may be possible to help predict how a tumour will respond to treatment. The technique works by firing extremely short laser pulses, which are a few billionths of a second in duration. These generate sound waves in tissue which are then detected at the surface and used to create an image.
Near infrared spectroscopy, which is the observation of the optical spectra, is a non-invasive technique which allows researchers to differentiate from oxygenated arterial blood which appears red, and venous blood which appears purple/blue due to their different rates of light absorption. Researchers at the University of Essex are shining light on the brain and the muscle; they are testing the theory that when David Beckham visualises taking a free kick, the same blood flow pathways in his mind and body are activated as when he actually scores it.
Professor Chris Cooper, of the Centre for Sports and Exercise Science, University of Essex, says: 'Mental imagery of this kind is the key to excelling in sport and is practised by all elite athletes. Our studies show that thinking about exercise isn't confined to the mind, it is real training of the mind and body.'
Dr Clare Elwell, of the UCL Department of Medical Physics & Bioengineering said: 'The optical systems we are developing are portable and completely safe to use. This means we can cast light on dynamic processes within the body which are difficult to measure with other techniques such as X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging. Photoacoustic imaging is particularly exciting because we are listening to the sound that light makes in tissue and using this information to produce detailed maps of blood vessels.'
An exhibition of the new technology will be at the Royal Society in London (3-7 July) and at the Glasgow Science Centre (12-14 September). Further details about the exhibition can be found at: www.sheddinglight.org.uk.