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Artificial confocal microscopy for deep label-free imaging


Wide-field microscopy of optically thick specimens typically features reduced contrast due to spatial cross-talk, in which the signal at each point in the field of view is the result of a superposition from neighbouring points that are simultaneously illuminated. In 1955, Marvin Minsky proposed confocal microscopy as a solution to this problem. Today, laser scanning confocal fluorescence microscopy is broadly used due to its high depth resolution and sensitivity, but comes at the price of photobleaching, chemical and phototoxicity. Here we present artificial confocal microscopy (ACM) to achieve confocal-level depth sectioning, sensitivity and chemical specificity non-destructively on unlabelled specimens. We equipped a commercial laser scanning confocal instrument with a quantitative phase imaging module, which provides optical path-length maps of the specimen in the same field of view as the fluorescence channel. Using pairs of phase and fluorescence images, we trained a convolution neural network to translate the former into the latter. The training to infer a new tag is very practical as the input and ground truth data are intrinsically registered and the data acquisition is automated. The ACM images present much stronger depth sectioning than the input (phase) images, enabling us to recover confocal-like tomographic volumes of microspheres, hippocampal neurons in culture, and three-dimensional liver cancer spheroids. By training on nucleus-specific tags, ACM allows for segmenting individual nuclei within dense spheroids for both cell counting and volume measurements. In summary, ACM can provide quantitative, dynamic data, non-destructively from thick samples while chemical specificity is recovered computationally.

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Fig. 1: ACM optical path and image processing.
Fig. 2: ACM network architecture and inference.
Fig. 3: ACM estimates volume and dry mass from inferred fluorescence signals.
Fig. 4: Label-free intracellular segmentation in turbid spheroids.
Fig. 5: Automated segmentation of cells inside spheroids.

Data availability

Due to size considerations, the data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Code availability

The code that supports the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


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This work is supported by the National Science Foundation (grant nos. CBET0939511 STC, NRT-UtB 1735252, CBET-1932192), the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (grant no. GM129709), the National Insititute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (grant nos. NS097610 and NS100019) and the National Cancer Institute (grant no. CA238191).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



X.C., M.E.K., and G.P. conceived the project. X.C. and M.E.K. designed the experiments. X.C. and M.E.K. built the system. X.C. performed imaging. S.H. trained the machine learning network. X.C. and M.E.K. analysed the data. G.T & H.J.C. provided neurons. Y.J.L. cultured neurons and performed immunocytochemistry. K.M.S. & H.K. provided spheroids. X.C., C.H. and G.P. derived the theoretical model. X.C., M.E.K., S.H., C.H. and G.P. wrote the manuscript. M.A. supervised the AI work. G.P. supervised the project.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Xi Chen.

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Competing interests

G.P. had a financial interest in Phi Optics, a company developing QPI technology for materials and life science applications. The remaining authors declare no competing interests.

Peer review

Peer review information

Nature Photonics thanks Adam Wax and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Comparison of ground truth to ACM power spectra from Fig. 3a–l.

Contours circumscribing theoretical resolution limits of confocal fluorescence system (ground truth) are shown in as red dotted circles. The theoretical lateral resolution of the system is 0.22 μm (NA = 1.3, 1 Airy Unit (AU), excitation wavelength at 561 nm), corresponding to a maximum lateral frequency of 14.3 rad/μm. The theoretical axial resolution of the system is about 0.50 μm, corresponding to a maximum axial frequency of 6.3 rad/μm. The 3D frequency coverage of the ground truth and ACM spectra agree, and both reach the theoretical resolution limits.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–15 and Notes 1–5.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Video 1

ACM-predicted 3D tomography of unlabelled live neurons.

Supplementary Video 2

ACM-predicted timelapse of unlabelled live neurons.

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Chen, X., Kandel, M.E., He, S. et al. Artificial confocal microscopy for deep label-free imaging. Nat. Photon. 17, 250–258 (2023).

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