Optical coherence tomography in dermatology: a review



Background/aims: Optical coherence tomography (OCT) is a non-invasive technique for morphological investigation of tissue. Since its development in the late 1980s it is mainly used as a diagnostic tool in ophthalmology. For examination of a highly scattering tissue like the skin, it was necessary to modify the method. Early studies on the value of OCT for skin diagnosis gave promising results.

Methods: The OCT technique is based on the principle of Michelson interferometry. The light sources used for OCT are low coherent superluminescent diodes operating at a wavelength of about 1300 nm. OCT provides two-dimensional images with a scan length of a few millimeters (mm), a resolution of about 15 μm and a maximum detection depth of 1.5 mm. The image acquisition can be performed nearly in real time. The measurement is non-invasive and with no side effects.

Results: The in vivo OCT images of human skin show a strong scattering from tissue with a few layers and some optical inhomogeneities. The resolution enables the visualization of architectural changes, but not of single cells. In palmoplantar skin, the thick stratum corneum is visible as a low-scattering superficial well defined layer with spiral sweat gland ducts inside. The epidermis can be distinguished from the dermis. Adnexal structures and blood vessels are low-scattering regions in the upper dermis. Skin tumors show a homogenous signal distribution. In some cases, tumor borders to healthy skin are detectable. Inflammatory skin diseases lead to changes of the OCT image, such as thickening of the epidermis and reduction of the light attenuation in the dermis. A quantification of treatment effects, such as swelling of the horny layer due to application of a moisturizer, is possible. Repeated measurements allow a monitoring of the changes over time.

Conclusion: OCT is a promising new bioengineering method for investigation of skin morphology. In some cases it may be useful for diagnosis of skin diseases. Because of its non-invasive character, the technique allows monitoring of inflammatory diseases over time. An objective quantification of the efficacy and tolerance of topical treatment is also possible. Due to the high resolution and simple application, OCT is an interesting addition to other morphological techniques in dermatology.