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Looking at the body in a whole new light

Publication date: Jul 3, 2006 3:54:08 PM

What goes through David Beckham’s mind as he lines up to take a World Cup free kick and how babies learn language are among the questions that may soon be answered thanks to new optical imaging systems that are under development at UCL and the University of Essex.

The techniques will be showcased at this year’s Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, which runs from the 3–6 July 2006. Visitors to the exhibit ‘Shedding light on the human body’ will learn how researchers are using near infrared light  – which is invisible to the naked eye – to look inside the body in a whole new way. 

Applications of these new technologies include investigating mental imagery in sport, monitoring brain damage in premature babies and detecting the growth of blood vessels around tumours.

Optical tomography makes it possible to assess brain function in newborn and premature babies. A device developed at UCL measures the flight times of photons across the head using ultra-short pulses of laser light. The information is then used to reconstruct 3-D images of blood volume and oxygenation. The optical images can be used to characterise the how the brain develops and to detect abnormalities associated with brain damage.

Photoacoustic imaging allows mapping of tiny blood vessels that proliferate as a tumour grows. By imaging the oxygen levels in these blood vessels it may be possible to help predict how a tumour will respond to treatment. The technique works by firing extremely short laser pulses, which are a few billionths of a second in duration. These generate sound waves in tissue which are then detected at the surface and used to create an image.

Near infrared spectroscopy is a non-invasive technique which takes advantage of the relative absorption of different wavelengths of light and allows researchers to differentiate between oxygenated arterial blood – which appears red – and venous blood which appears purple/blue. Researchers at the University of Essex are shining light on the brain and the muscle; they are testing the theory that when Beckham visualises taking a free kick, the same blood flow pathways in his mind and body are activated as when he actually scores it. 

Professor Chris Cooper, of the Centre for Sports and Exercise Science, University of Essex, says: “Mental imagery of this kind is the key to excelling in sport and is practised by all elite athletes. Our studies show that thinking about exercise isn’t confined to the mind, it is real training of the mind and body.” 

Dr Clare Elwell, of the UCL Department of Medical Physics & Bioengineering, who helped put the exhibit together, says: “The optical systems we are developing are portable and completely safe to use. This means we can cast light on dynamic processes within the body which are difficult to measure with other techniques such as X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging. Photoacoustic imaging is particularly exciting because we are listening to the sound that light makes in tissue and using this information to produce detailed maps of blood vessels.” 

Further details about the exhibition can be found at:

The exhibition will be at the Royal Society in London (3–7 July) and at the Glasgow Science Centre (12–14 September)

The exhibition is sponsored by Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC), the Medical Research Council (MRC), Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Hamamatsu Photonics KK, Masimo Corporation, PROACT Medical Ltd., Artinis Medical Systems, Intimex, Hutchinson Technology.


For further information, please contact:

Dr Clare Elwell, UCL Department of Medical Physics & Bioengineering, Tel: + 44 (0) 20 7679 0270,  Email:

Judith H Moore, UCL Media Relations, Tel: +44 (0) 20 7679 7678, Mobile: +44 (0)77333 075 96, Email:

About the Summer Science Exhibition

The Summer Science Exhibition is held annually at the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science. The event is free and open to the public. This year, 24 interactive exhibits will be on show presenting the best of UK science, engineering and technology. During the four days of the event, more than 4,000 people are expected to take up the opportunity to explore the exhibition.

The Summer Science Exhibition takes place at the Royal Society, 6–9 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AG.  

The exhibition is free and open to the public: Monday 3 July 6.00pm to 9.00pm (note evening opening time), Tuesday 4 July 10.00am to 4.30pm, Wednesday 5 July 10.00am to 4.30pm and Thursday 6 July 10.00am to 4.30pm. For more information visit: