Optical measurements and imaging of neonates is instrumental in our understanding of disease progress and of tracking patients’ most crucial period of development. Where penetration depth and tissue scattering often hinder high-resolution optical imaging in humans, the transparency of newborn skin allows for a unique opportunity for utilizing optical approaches.

One example technique, pulse oximetry, uses near infrared wavelengths of light to non-invasively monitor oxygen saturation. The relatively long wavelengths allow doctors to explore deeper, directly measuring light interaction with arterial blood. Valerie Chock, M.D., is taking this technique one step further using a technique called near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS). This modality is being used to improve monitoring of regional oxygenation levels of critically ill infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Clinical monitoring using optical imaging may help to guide therapeutic intervention in infants with altered hemodynamics, especially in those babies who have complications from premature birth such as congenital heart disease or central nervous system injury.

We also use light to report on biological structure and function. Similar to when your car has engine troubles and the check engine light displays on the dash, bioluminescence imaging uses the genes of fireflies and jellyfish to literally light up specific biological areas of interest by coupling single gene expression with light output. Chrisopher Contag, PhD, is studying this phenomenon as it applies to the expansion and differentiation of hematopoietic (blood) stem cells, pathobiology of lung disease, and infection and inflammatory responses to (and markers for) cancer.

These approaches represent just a couple of the optical imaging technologies doctors and scientists are developing for low-cost, non-invasive, real-time tracking and analysis of disease at the molecular and cellular levels.


Clinical Associate Professor, Pediatrics - Neonatal and Developmental Medicine
Professor of Pediatrics (Neonatology), of Microbiology and Immunology and, by courtesy, of Radiology and of Bioengineering