In near–infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) of tissue, light attenuation is due to: (i) absorption from chromophores of fixed concentration, (ii) absorption from chromophores of variable concentration, and (iii) light scatter. NIRS is usually concerned with trying to quantify the concentrations of chromophores in category (ii), in particular oxy– and deoxyhaemoglobin (HbO2 and Hb) and cytochrome oxidase.
In the absence of scatter the total light absorption in the medium is a linear sum of that due to each chromophore. In a scattering medium like tissue, this linear summation is distorted because the optical path length at each wavelength may differ. This distorted spectrum is then superimposed upon a further wavelength–dependent attenuation arising from light loss due to scatter, which is a complex function of the tissue absorption and scattering coefficients (μa and μs), scattering phase function, and tissue and measurement geometry. Consequently, quantification of NIRS data is difficult.
Over the past 20 years many differing approaches to quantification have been tried. The development of methods for measuring optical path length in tissue initially enabled changes in concentration to be quantified, and subsequently methods for absolute quantification of HbO2 and Hb were developed by correlating NIRS changes with an independent measurement of arterial haemoglobin saturation. Absolute determination of tissue optical properties, however, requires additional information over and above the detected intensity at the tissue surface, which must then be combined with a model of light transport to derive μa and μs. The additional data can take many forms, e.g. the change in intensity with distance, the temporal dispersion of light from an ultrashort input light pulse, or phase, and modulation depth changes of intensity–modulated light. All these approaches are now being actively pursued with considerable success. However, all the approaches are limited by the accuracy of the light transport models, especially in inhomogeneous media.