Imaging and Sensing

Many advancements in the field of imaging and sensing have been born out of a need to learn more about our smallest and most vulnerable. Infants cannot tell us what’s wrong; nor can their tiny bodies (sometimes with less than 2 ounces of circulating blood) withstand a battery of invasive tests. They are not going to keep still for an MRI scan either. The goal then with the imaging and sensing technologies we employ, and often develop, is for them to be as minimally invasive as possible.

The speed at which new technologies are being created is faster than ever before, giving us the tools to do more with less perturbation. Our imaging capabilities report upon the different levels of biological organization, from genomics and proteomics to gross physiology. Studying biochemistry in real time in living organisms allows for a more precise reading of functional and anatomical biomarkers.

Stanford has one of the world’s best molecular imaging programs. Founded as an interdisciplinary research venture in 2003, the program is well-funded, supported by two NIH training grants as well as several project grants, and houses state-of-the-art imaging facilities. Dr. Christopher Contag acts as co-director, and he is also one of the founders of the World Molecular Imaging Society.

The Molecular Imaging Program operates a small animal imaging service center, which specializes in digital whole body autoradiography (DWBA), microPET, microSPECT/CT, optical bioluminescence/fluorescence and ultrasound.

Imaging Modalities

Within the field of neonatology, there are several imaging modalities used to study intact biological systems:

  • Optical imaging: We gather information by probing tissue with light or we use engineered light to report on biological function. These optical reporters help us to make more accurate diagnoses and may improve treatment. Read More>>
  • Gas detection: We can tell a lot about a baby’s physiology by measuring the metabolites in her breath.  We have been using the measurement of CO in breath to monitor total bilirubin formation for many years. Some of the first work on hydrogen gas excretion to study carbohydrate absorption and bacterial colonization in preterm infants was also done at Stanford. 
  • Micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) technology: Using MEMS technology, miniature confocal scanning microscopes can be made small enough to be put into handheld instruments for what’s known as point-of-care microscopy.  In addition, because of their small size, many of these microscopes can be packaged together in an array to cover areas that are much larger than what is possible using only a single microscope. The multiple microscopes in such an array can then be used simultaneously to multiply the speed at which tissue can be examined in situ. This increased throughput allows pathology assessments to be made during treatment procedures.
  • MRI: 1-Tesla permanent MRI magnets are smaller with fewer coils. They may be used at the bedside (making transport a near non-issue) and can quickly get a read on a baby. They are also far less expensive than traditional 3-Tesla MRI scanners.


Clinical Associate Professor, Pediatrics - Neonatal and Developmental Medicine
Professor of Pediatrics (Neonatology), of Microbiology and Immunology and, by courtesy, of Radiology and of Bioengineering
The Harold K. Faber Professor of Pediatrics and Professor, by courtesy, of Obstetrics and Gynecology