Optical Coherence Tomography, or ‘OCT’, is a technique for obtaining sub-surface images of translucent or opaque materials at a resolution equivalent to a low-power microscope. It is effectively ‘optical ultrasound’, imaging reflections from within tissue to provide cross-sectional images.
OCT is attracting interest among the medical community, because it provides tissue morphology imagery at much higher resolution (better than 10 µm) than other imaging modalities such as MRI or ultrasound.
OCT delivers high resolution because it is based on light, rather than sound or radio frequency. An optical beam is directed at the tissue, and a small portion of this light that reflects from sub-surface features is collected. Note that most light is not reflected but, rather, scatters off at large angles. In conventional imaging, this diffusely scattered light contributes background that obscures an image. However, in OCT, optical coherence is used to record the optical path length of received photons allowing rejection of most photons that scatter multiple times before detection. Thus OCT can build up clear 3D images of thick samples by rejecting background signal while collecting light directly reflected from surfaces of interest.
Within the range of noninvasive three-dimensional imaging techniques that have been introduced to the medical research community, OCT as an echo technique is similar to ultrasound imaging. Other medical imaging techniques such as computerized axial tomography, magnetic resonance imaging, or positron emission tomography do not utilize the echo-location principle.
The technique is limited to imaging 1 to 2 mm below the surface in biological tissue, because at greater depths the proportion of light that escapes without scattering is too small to be detected. No special preparation of a biological specimen is required, and images can be obtained ‘non-contact’ or through a transparent window or membrane. It is also important to note that the laser output from the instruments is low – eye-safe near-infra-red light is used – and no damage to the sample is therefore likely.