Travelling through scattering tissue with far less light

March 8, 2017, University of Twente
Seeing light as only particles, an speckled image would be the result, while by including the wave character, the fully reconstructible image (right) is formed. Credit: University of Twente

Medical applications of light, looking inside human tissue, often are limited by the highly scattering nature of tissue. Inuitively, a lower limit of one photon per camera pixel is assumed. Scientists of the University of Twente in The Netherlands and Caltech in Pasadena, USA, prove that the lower limit is actually much lower, thus opening possibilities of going deeper into tissue with less light.

How do you send light through scattering and how much light do you actually need for that? One photon per pixel of the camera would be the lower limit, you might say. Remarkably, you can go much lower, researchers of UT and Caltech show in Physical Review Letters.

Although light has promising biomedical applications, for example for measuring blood circulation or tracing tumors, the depth is limited by the heavy scattering of the tissue. How much light do you actually need? The new results of researchers of the University of Twente in The Netherlands and Caltech in Pasadena, shows that the intuitive lower limit of one photon per pixel actually is not the lower limit. Thanks to the wave character of light, even a few thousandth of a photon per pixel is sufficient. For several reasons, this is good news, as you can't simply use more light: too much of it can damage the tissue.

Back tracing

The small amount of light that finds its way through tissue, has travelled a complex path. It is scattered many times, but eventually finds a way out. If you manage to go back along this path, you know what waveform is needed to send light through tissue with success. Although you don't know the exact path in that case, you do know that there is a path: you calculate the result back to the source. In this way it is also possible to focus light inside tissue, enabling looking through tissue or deeper inside the brain.


Imagine no more than 1000 photons traveling through tissue, while the camera chip has 200.000 pixels. The first thought is that just 1000 pixels receive light, showing an occasional 'speckle' here and there. This is not the correct assumption, however. Different pixels can, at the same time, register the information of one single photon. As light is a wave as well, one photon can travel different paths. The phase of the light falling on the camera pixels, is always a combination of the actual signal and a reference source. Even with an 'unequal ratio' of pixels and photons, the full image is available and can be calculated back to the source. Although the image has less contrast, it remains possible to reconstruct it. That is something you wouldn't expect seeing photons as separate particles. This counterintuitive result proves that you need far less light to go deeply into tissue. This is good news for applications in new imaging techniques, for example hybrid techniques that use a combination of light and ultrasound.

Explore further: Quantum physics inside a drop of paint

More information: Optical phase conjugation with less than a photon per degree of freedom.

Related Stories

Quantum physics inside a drop of paint

May 12, 2016

Inside a drop of paint, light is scattered so often that it seems impossible to demonstrate quantum effects. But despite the thousands of possible paths the light can take, like a drunk person inside a labyrinth, researchers ...

Absorption straightens the drunken stagger of light

July 1, 2014

( —In a study partly funded by the FOM Foundation, physicists from the University of Twente and Yale University have discovered that light travelling through an opaque material follows a straighter path, if the ...

Creative Cameras exhibit explores light-in-flight imaging

July 6, 2014

The Creative Cameras exhibition team from Heriot-Watt University and the University of Glasgow are asking some interesting questions. How do you take images so fast that you can see light travelling through air? How do you ...

Recommended for you

CMS gets first result using largest-ever LHC data sample

February 15, 2019

Just under three months after the final proton–proton collisions from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)'s second run (Run 2), the CMS collaboration has submitted its first paper based on the full LHC dataset collected in ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Mar 08, 2017
The Doctor with the VR goggles or Holo-lens glasses looks less crazy every day.
These optical enhancements could be as common as the auditory enhancement of a stethoscope is today.
Even inserting a cannula isn't currently as straightforward and error free as you would hope. Especially on an infant or elderly patient.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.