Researchers at the University of St Andrews, UK, have developed a new method of using light to scan the human body which could offer a less intrusive and more effective diagnosis.

The new technique enables light to be shaped so it can reach greater depths within biological tissue enabling high-quality 3D images to be taken. It also allows for the detailed 3D images of biological specimens to be gathered without the need for dissection or having to rotate specimens to take multiple images to fuse together.

The approach was developed as a result of a collaboration between researchers from the Schools of Physics and Astronomy, Biology, Medicine and the Scottish Oceans Institute at the university.

In their study published in the journal Science Advances, the researchers highlighted that the new method improves two existing imaging techniques, Bessel beam based light-sheet microscopy and Airy beam based light-sheet microscopy.

Dr Jonathan Nylk from the School of Physics and Astronomy said: “We’ve recently discovered particular beam shapes that retain their shape when travelling through biological tissue. These beams, called Airy beams and Bessel beams, resist the effects of scattering but they still become dimmer as they travel deeper, so it remains challenging to collect enough signal back through the tissue to form an image.

“Now we show that these beams can be further enhanced to give us more control over their shape, such that they actually get brighter as they travel. When the increase in brightness is matched with the decrease in brightness when travelling through tissue, a strong signal and a clear image can still be acquired from deep within the sample.”

The research builds upon previous advances in light-sheet imaging, which involves a thin sheet of light cutting across a sample like a razor to section it without cutting or damaging it.

Curved Airy light-sheets have been shown to give sharp images over a volume ten times larger than previously possible. This is expected to be useful for both light-sheet microscopy and pushing the limits of other optical imaging techniques.

The researchers hope that developing the technique will lead to improved understanding of biological development, cancer, and diseases that affect the brain such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s.