MIT researchers have developed a way to replace complex, expensive medical imaging equipment with much less expensive consumer equipment and a little bit of fancy math. The technique uses technology like the Microsoft Kinect paired with sophisticated mathematical modeling to perform nearly the same tasks as a US$100,000 lab microscope.
The technique, called fluorescence lifetime imaging, will be familiar to anyone who has ever experienced certain "glow in the dark" materials that depend on the same property of fluorescence to absorb light and then be able to re-emit it later. Measuring the time intervals between light absorption and emission in a biological sample with fluorescent dye can reveal data to scientists about its chemical composition.
Traditional fluorescence lifetime imaging equipment needs to be able to measure these intervals in the nanosecond range, which would seem to rule out consumer equipment like the Kinect from being useful in the field, since the light bursts it uses are at least an order of magnitude longer in duration.
However, MIT researchers using a Kinect were able to extract useful information when using it for fluorescence lifetime imaging by running its light signal through something called a Fourier Transform, which breaks a signal down into its constituent frequencies. Within this frequency data, phase shift measurements also provide information about fluorescence lifetime.
While this setup can't match the image resolution of pricier fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopes, upgrading to better hardware beyond the capabilities of a $100 Kinect using the technique should still be far less expensive than traditional systems.
"The theme of our work is to take the electronic and optical precision of this big expensive microscope and replace it with sophistication in mathematical modeling," says one of the system's developers, MIT graduate student Ayush Bhandari. "We show that you can use something in consumer imaging, like the Microsoft Kinect, to do bioimaging in much the same way that the microscope is doing."
Beyond intended biomedical applications, some scientists see the system's potential for providing a sort of superpower on par with x-ray vision.
"If I had one of these devices, what I would do is just go looking around the world at stuff," says Harvard University professor Adam Cohen. "Humans can't see polarization in the light — we only see color — and there's all this structure that insects can see because they can see polarization that we're just blind to."
The research is outlined in the most recent issue of the journal Optica.
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