The researchers produced the first laser ultrasound images in humans, For most people getting an ultrasound is a relatively easy procedure, As a technician gently presses a probe against a patient’s skin, sound waves generated by the probe travel through the skin, bouncing off muscle, fat, and other soft tissues before reflecting back to the probe, which detects and translates the waves into an image of what lies beneath.

Conventional ultrasound doesn’t expose patients to harmful radiation as X-ray and CT scanners do, and it’s generally noninvasive.

But it does require contact with a patient’s body, and as such, may be limiting in situations where clinicians might want to image patients who don’t tolerate the probe well, such as babies, burn victims, or other patients with sensitive skin.

Now, MIT engineers have come up with an alternative to conventional ultrasound that doesn’t require contact with the body to see inside a patient.

The new laser ultrasound technique leverages an eye- and skin-safe laser system to remotely image the inside of a person. When trained on a patient’s skin, one laser remotely generates sound waves that bounce through the body.

A second laser remotely detects the reflected waves, which researchers then translate into an image similar to conventional ultrasound.

In recent years, researchers have explored laser-based methods in ultrasound excitation in a field known as photoacoustics. Instead of directly sending sound waves into the body, the idea is to send in light, in the form of a pulsed laser tuned at a particular wavelength, that penetrates the skin and is absorbed by blood vessels.

The blood vessels rapidly expand and relax — instantly heated by a laser pulse then rapidly cooled by the body back to their original size only to be struck again by another light pulse. The resulting mechanical vibrations generate sound waves that travel back up, where they can be detected by transducers placed on the skin and translated into a photoacoustic image.

Since sound waves travel further into the body than light, Zhang, Anthony, and their colleagues looked for a way to convert a laser beam’s light into sound waves at the surface of the skin, in order to image deeper in the body.

The researchers tested this idea with a laser setup, using one pulsed laser set at 1,550 nanometers to generate sound waves, and a second continuous laser, tuned to the same wavelength, to remotely detect reflected sound waves. This second laser is a sensitive motion detector that measures vibrations on the skin surface caused by the sound waves bouncing off muscle, fat, and other tissues.

Skin surface motion, generated by the reflected sound waves, causes a change in the laser’s frequency, which can be measured. By mechanically scanning the lasers over the body, scientists can acquire data at different locations and generate an image of the region.

The researchers plan to improve their technique, and they are looking for ways to boost the system’s performance to resolve fine features in the tissue. They are also looking to hone the detection laser’s capabilities. Further down the road, they hope to miniaturize the laser setup, so that laser ultrasound might one day be deployed as a portable device.

I can imagine a scenario where you’re able to do this in the home, Anthony says. 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. You could imagine deploying this in the ambient environment to get an understanding of your internal state.