Say goodbye to that cold goop, and say hello to a new laser ultrasound that can make reading from half a meter away. Importantly, it won’t blast away what it’s trying to measure thanks to the laser selected for the system — 1,550-nanometer, a wavelength absorbed extremely well by water and therefore harmless to the skin.


The new field of photoacoustics, of which laser ultrasounds are a part, is centered around sending light in the form of a carefully tuned, pulsed laser into a material so it can be measured by a transducer and turned into an image.


In the laser ultrasound developed by MIT, one laser is used to generate sound waves that bounce through the body. A second laser detects the reflected waves, which are translated into an image similar to conventional ultrasound.


Why does it matter?

Traditional ultrasounds are safe. They use sound waves to create an image and don’t expose patients to harmful radiation like other imaging technologies. But they do require physical contact between the probe and the skin. That creates a problem for burn victims and accident survivors. 


The laser ultrasound uses a pulsed laser that causes blood vessels, tissue and muscles to rapidly expand and oscillate back to their normal state, creating sound waves that bounce off muscle, fat and other tissues are measured by the second laser, which is non-pulsed, constant and tuned to the same wavelength as the first laser.


This is a proof of concept. MIT researchers plan to improve the laser system and boost its performance so it can measure finer features in human tissue. They also hope to miniaturize the setup so it can be deployed as a portable device.


According to Brian W. Anthony, the principal research scientist at MIT, “We’re at the beginning of what we could do with laser ultrasound…This gives you a whole new way of seeing organs inside the body and determining properties of deep tissue, without making contact with the patient.”


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