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Keywords:

  • biomedical optics;
  • microcirculation;
  • polarization spectroscopy;
  • blanching;
  • erythema

Background/aims: Many clinical conditions that affect the microcirculation of the skin are still diagnosed and followed up by observational methods alone in spite of the fact that non-invasive, more user-independent and objective methods are available today. Limited portability, high cost, lack of robustness and non-specificity of findings are among the factors that have hampered the implementation of these methods in a clinical setting. The aim of this study is to present and evaluate a new, portable and easy-to-use imaging technology for investigation of the red blood cell (RBC) concentration in the skin microvasculature based on the method of polarization light spectroscopy using modified standard digital camera technology.

Methods: The use of orthogonal linear polarization filters over both the flash source and the detector array removes the polarization-retaining light reflected from the epidermal layer. Only the depolarized light backscattered from the papillary dermal matrix reaches the detector array. By separating the RGB color planes of an image acquired in this manner and applying a dedicated image processing algorithm, spectroscopic information about the chromophores in the dermal tissue can be attained. If the algorithm is based on a differential principle in which the normalized differences between the individual values of the red and green color plane are calculated, tissue components with similar spectral signature in both planes are suppressed, while components with different spectral signatures such as RBCs are enhanced.

Results: In vitro fluid models compare well with theory and computer simulations in describing a linear relationship between the imager output signal termed the tissue viability index (TiViindex) and RBC concentration in the physiological range of 0–4% RBC fraction of tissue volume (cc=0.997, n=20). The influence of oxygen saturation on the calculated RBC concentration is limited to within −3.9% for values within the physiological range (70–100% oxygen saturation). Monte Carlo simulations provide information about the sampling depth (about 0.5 mm on the average) of the imaging system. In vivo system evaluation based on iontophoresis of acetylcholine displays a heterogeneous pattern of vasodilatation appearing inside the electrode area after about 10 min. Topical application of methyl nicotinate and clobetasol propionate further demonstrates the capacity to document the extent and intensity of both an increase (erythema) and a decrease (blanching) in the skin RBC concentration without movement artifact and with compensation for irregularity in pigmentation.

Conclusions: Polarization light spectroscopy imaging for assessment of RBC concentration in the skin microvasculature is a robust and accessible technique for the clinical setting. Additionally, the technique has pre-clinical research applications for investigation of the spatial and temporal aspects of skin erythema and blanching as well as a potential role in drug development, skin care product development and skin toxicological assessment.