Optical coherence tomography (OCT) is a non-contact method for imaging the topological and internal microstructure of samples in three dimensions. OCT can be configured as a conventional microscope, an ophthalmic scanner or endoscopes and small-diameter catheters for accessing internal biological organs. In this Primer, the principles underpinning the different instrument configurations that are tailored to distinct imaging applications are described and the origin of signal, based on light scattering and propagation, is explained. Although OCT has been used for imaging inanimate objects, the discussion focuses on biological and medical imaging. The signal processing methods and algorithms that make OCT exquisitely sensitive to reflections, as weak as just a few photons, and reveal functional information in addition to structure are examined. Image processing, display and interpretation, which are all critical for effective biomedical imaging, are discussed in the context of specific applications. Finally, image artefacts and limitations that commonly arise and future advances and opportunities are considered.
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B.E.B., J.F.d.B., B.J.V. and M.V. are inventors on patents owned by Mass General Brigham in the field of optical coherence tomography (OCT) and acknowledge patent royalties, administered through Mass General Brigham, from organizations that may gain or lose financially through this publication. I.-K.J. has received educational grants from Abbott Vascular and consulting fees from Svelte Medical Systems, Inc. and Mitobridge, Inc. D.H. and Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) have significant financial interests in an organization that may gain or lose financially through this publication. D.H. acknowledges research support and patent royalty from an organization that may gain or lose financially through this publication. D.D.S. is an inventor on patents owned by the University of Western Australia in the field of OCT and licensed to organizations that may gain or lose financially through this publication. T.Y., C.L.L., R.L., M.S. and M.W. declare no competing interests.
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- Optical heterodyning
The mixing of oscillatory waveforms having different frequencies, typically in order to generate a signal having a lower frequency suitable for direct detection.
- Optical coherence-domain reflectometry
A technique using light with short temporal coherence and an interferometer with a scanning path difference to measure weak distributed back reflections in one-dimensional waveguides.
- Optical frequency-domain reflectometry
A technique that uses a wavelength swept laser and an interferometer with a fixed reference path length to measure weak distributed back reflections in one-dimensional waveguides.
- Numerical aperture
Characterization of the range of angles through which an imaging system illuminates or collects light from a sample. A low f-number and a high numerical aperture characterize a system having high spatial resolution.
- Shot noise
The fluctuations in a signal that arise from the particle nature of photons and that may be modelled by a Poisson process.
- Polarization fading
In a coherent optical receiver, the characteristic decrease in the measured signal when the polarization states of the signal and the reference light become misaligned.
A sequence of pixel values corresponding to a geometric line within a sample.
- Fabry–Perot filters
Optical cavities comprising two parallel reflectors for which the transmission spectrum is characterized by periodic, narrow bands.
- Fibre Bragg gratings
A type of distributed Bragg reflector formed by periodic changes of the index of refraction in an optical fibre waveguide that may be used to selectively pass specific wavelengths of light.
- Jones formalism
A calculus described by R. C. Jones for modelling the propagation of light in which vectors represent the polarization state of an optical field and matrices represent the operation of specific optical elements. Optical systems may be modelled by time-ordered products of the matrices representing each element of the system.
- B-mode imaging
The acquisition of successive A-line data while the imaging beam is scanned transversely across a sample. Resulting data represent a cross-sectional image.
- B–M-mode imaging
The acquisition of successive M-mode data while the imaging beam is scanned transversely across a sample. M-mode data are obtained by fixing the imaging beam at one sample location and repeatedly acquiring A-line data.
- M–B-mode imaging
The acquisition of successive B-mode images over time.
The ratio of the focal length to the illumination aperture. A low f-number and a high numerical aperture characterize a system having high spatial resolution.
- Pull-back image
In endoscopic or catheter-based imaging, a two-dimensional, cross-sectional image comprises pixels in radial and circumferential coordinates. A helical scan representing a cylindrical volume may be acquired by repeating cross-sectional imaging while the imaging sensor is scanned or pulled back along a cylindrical axis, typically within a luminal organ.
A mottled-appearing artefact of bright and dark features, on a scale near that of the resolution, that arises from coherent interference of back reflections from a sample. This is a characteristic of coherent imaging methods such as ultrasonography, confocal microscopy and optical coherence tomography.
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Bouma, B.E., de Boer, J.F., Huang, D. et al. Optical coherence tomography. Nat Rev Methods Primers 2, 79 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43586-022-00162-2