We’re all familiar with x-rays—they’re a staple in diagnostic technology. The use of x-rays for medical and diagnostic purposes was first discovered by Wilhelm Roentgen and used shortly thereafter for locating bullets and shrapnel in wounded soldiers. His work won him a Nobel Prize.
However, x-rays have their own limitations. In conventional methods, images are produced by the scattering of rays when they hit tissue. That’s why many areas around the lungs, for example, remain dark: there’s nothing for the waves to scatter against.
To overcome some of these limitations, researchers have implemented a method called “dark field x-rays.” This method was employed specifically to diagnose pulmonary conditions earlier than conventional x-ray methods while using a fraction of the radiation typically used in x-rays.
Dark field x-rays are not an entirely new technology, and have been shown to offer some benefits compared to typical methods. Conventional x-rays operate by looking at the reduction in x-ray intensity as they pass through the body. According to previous research, however, dark field x-ray technology takes advantage of the x-ray’s wave properties, and is especially effective in lung imaging because these waves have a “relatively high signal in the lungs due to the many air-tissue interfaces in the alveoli.” This new approach allows researchers to see structures in the body that would have otherwise been transparent or invisible in traditional methods.
In a clinical study reported in Lancet Digital Health, researchers employed dark-field x-rays to study patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a condition characterized by changes to alveoli. Monitoring changes to alveoli, and distinguishing between healthy and diseased lung tissue, is next to impossible for conventional x-ray techniques. Seventy seven patients underwent a series of conventional and dark field x-ray imaging as well as pulmonary function tests. Overall findings found that dark-field x-rays could effectively diagnose pulmonary emphysema and enable clearer pictures of a patient’s lung structure.
In addition to offering a more effective imaging technique, dark field x-rays also require significantly less exposure to radiation. Conventional x-ray technology usually requires multiple images from different angles, increasing radiation exposure. Based on the technique developed by researchers, only one image/exposure is needed.