MIT researchers create first laser ultrasound images of humans

A team of engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have created an ultrasound system that use lasers to image patients who might not be able to tolerate traditional probes.

Unlike conventional ultrasound, which requires contact with a patient’s body, the new technique generates sound waves using one laser while another remotely detects the reflected waves to produce an image on-par with commercial modalities. For patients such as burn victims, babies and those with sensitive skin, the development could be a game-changer.

"We're at the beginning of what we could do with laser ultrasound," Brian W. Anthony, a principal research scientist in MIT's Department of Mechanical Engineering, said in a statement. "Imagine we get to a point where we can do everything ultrasound can do now, but at a distance. 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."

Anthony and colleagues produced the first laser ultrasound images in humans, sharing their process Dec. 20 in Nature: Light Science and Applications. To achieve this, they scanned the forearms of volunteers and were able to visualize common tissue features such as muscle, fat and bone, about 6 centimeters below the skin. The images were comparable to those produced by commercial-grade ultrasound, but were completed a half meter away from the patients.

The MIT team is already looking for ways to improve upon their new ultrasound, including a smaller laser setup, in hopes it may one day be a handheld, portable machine.

“I can imagine a scenario where you're able to do this in the home," Anthony said. "When I get up in the morning, I can get an image of my thyroid or arteries, and can have in-home physiological imaging inside of my body.”