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Published September 2018 | Published
Journal Article Open

Advances in super-resolution photoacoustic imaging


Photoacoustic (PA) imaging (PAI), or optoacoustic imaging, is a hybrid imaging modality that combines optical absorption contrast and ultrasound image formation. In PAI, the target is excited by a short laser pulse and subsequently absorbs the photon energy, leading to a transient local temperature rise. The temperature rise induces a local pressure rise that propagates as acoustic waves. As acoustic waves generally undergo less scattering and attenuation in tissue compared with light, PAI can provide high-resolution images in both the optical (quasi)ballistic and (quasi)diffusive regimes (1,2). Based on the image formation methods, PAI can be classified into two categories: photoacoustic microscopy (PAM) and photoacoustic computed tomography (PACT). PAM uses a focused excitation light beam and/or a focused single-element ultrasonic transducer for direct image formation through position scanning (1,2). PAM has a maximum imaging depth ranging from a few hundred micrometers to a few millimeters with spatial resolution ranging from sub-micrometer to sub-millimeter (2,3). PAM can be further classified into optical-resolution PAM (OR-PAM) and acoustic-resolution PAM (AR-PAM). For both OR-PAM and AR-PAM, the axial resolution is determined by the bandwidth of the ultrasonic transducer (4). OR-PAM works in the optical (quasi)ballistic regime, whereas the light is tightly focused that it can penetrate about one optical transport mean free path (~1 mm in soft tissue). Therefore, the lateral resolution of OR-PAM is mainly determined by the optical focal spot size (4-6). The optical focusing is diffraction-limited as λ/2NA, where λ is the light wavelength, and NA is the numerical aperture of objective lens. On the contrary, in AR-PAM, the laser is loosely focused to fulfill the entire acoustic focal spot, thereby penetrating a few optical transport mean free paths, i.e., in the quasi-diffusive regime. The lateral resolution of AR-PAM is thus determined by the size of acoustic focus (4,7,8), limited by acoustic diffraction. In PACT, the object is illuminated with a wide-field laser beam in the diffusive regime, and the generated acoustic waves are detected at multiple locations or by using a multi-element transducer array. The image formed by PACT is reconstructed by an inverse algorithm. The spatial resolution of PACT is fundamentally limited by acoustic diffraction, and additionally affected by the directionality and spacing of the detector elements (9). Recently, several studies have shown that sub-diffraction imaging of biological samples can be achieved through PAI by breaking optical-diffraction limit in the (quasi)ballistic regime or acoustic-diffraction limit in the (quasi)diffusive regime, which have opened new possibilities for fundamental biological studies. Yao et al. developed a photoimprint PAM using the intensity-dependent photobleaching effect and acquired a melanoma cell PA image with a lateral resolution of 90 nm (10). Danielli et al. reported a label-free PA nanoscopy based on the optical-absorption saturation effect and acquired a mitochondria PA image with a lateral resolution of 88 nm (11). Chaigne et al. exploited the sample-dynamics-induced inherent temporal fluctuation in the PA signals and achieved a resolution enhancement of about 1.4 over conventional PACT (12). Murray et al. broke the acoustic diffraction limit by implementing a blind speckle illumination and block-FISTA reconstruction algorithm and achieved a resolution close to the acoustic speckle size (13). Dean-Ben et al. also overcame the acoustic diffraction limit by incorporating rapid sequential acquisition of 3D PA images of flowing absorbing particles and further enhanced the visibility of structures under limited-view tomographic conditions (14). Conkey et al. optimized wavefront shaping with photoacoustic feedback and achieved up to ten times improvement in signal-to-noise ratio and five to six times sub-acoustic-diffraction resolution (15). In this concise review, we summarize and analyze the recent development in super-resolution (SR) PAI (SR-PAI) in both the optical (quasi)ballistic and (quasi)diffusive regime, as well as their representative applications. We also discuss the current challenges in SR-PAI and envision the potential breakthroughs.

Additional Information

© 2018 Quantitative Imaging in Medicine and Surgery. Submitted Sep 09, 2018. Accepted for publication Sep 17, 2018. Funding: We would like to thank the support from Duke MEDx Basic Science Pilot Grant, Duke Center for Genomic and Computational Biology Faculty Pilot Research Grant, and American Heart Association Collaborative Sciences Award 18CSA34080277 (all to J Yao). The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.

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August 19, 2023
August 19, 2023