The Confocal Tonal Shift

The Heidelberg Spectralis confocal scanning laser ophthalmoscope (cSLO) is a commonly used diagnostic imaging device that uses monochromatic laser illumination to image the eye. It can be used for several retinal imaging modalities including infrared reflectance (IR), fluorescein angiography, ICG angiography and fundus autofluorescence (FAF). The confocal capability of the cSLO allows it to capture high-contrast, finely detailed images.

But what does confocal actually mean and how does it work? The word confocal simply means “having the same focus”. In this case it refers to the confocal pinhole or aperture that is optically located at the same plane of focus as the subject. The cSLO utilizes a focused laser to scan the subject point-by-point and then captures the reflected light after it passes through a confocal pinhole. The pinhole suppresses out-of-focus light from reaching the image detector resulting in very sharp images. The confocal pinhole is especially effective at eliminating unwanted scatter from cataracts or corneal opacities since these structures fall far outside the plane of focus.

Left: Patient with a cataract obscuring the view of the retina and optic nerve through a fundus camera. Right: The confocal pinhole of the cSLO suppresses the scatter from the cataract improving the view of the fundus.

When imaging a patient, you can see the confocal effect as you adjust the focus to the plane of the retina where it is most light efficient. The image on screen will get brightest just as you come into sharpest focus. A secondary effect of the confocal aperture is how it effects the appearance of elevated or out of focus retinal structures.

The plane of focus effects reflectivity and appearance of retinal tissues based on depth due to the confocal aperture. All three images are at the same wavelength. Focus is on the elevated optic disc on the left image. Tonality changes as focus is shifted to the retinal surface.

Adjusting the focus knob of the Spectralis can have a dramatic effect on the tonal appearance of elevated structures such as papilledema or vitreous floaters as seen here in this video.

Note the optic nerve get progressively darker as focus is adjusted from the peak of the nerve to the surface of the surrounding retina, which starts to appear brighter. The opposite occurs in the second example. Vitreous floaters from asteroid hyalosis appear as dark shadows when focus is set on the optic nerve. As focus is shifted up into the vitreous, the floaters begin to brighten and the retina fades to  dark. The brightness/exposure has not been adjusted during this tonal shift.  The only change is the focus.

So what does this mean for us as diagnostic imagers? Because of the inherently shallow depth of focus of the cSLO, some ocular structures may appear dark simply because they are slightly out of focus. Elevated serous detachments or papilledema are examples of this phenomenon that I call the confocal tonal shift.

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A case of central serous chorioretinopathy with a classic serous detachment that can be seen ophthalmoscopically. The cSLO image is dramatic in it’s appearance due to the confocal shift. The dark area is elevated and filled with clear fluid (not blood).

In some cases the confocal tonal shift can enhance the diagnostic information by clearly outlining the borders of an elevated area or lesion. The effect is most notable with the IR laser and in red free mode.

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The confocal tonal shift in three different modalities. From left to right: IR, monochromatic blue, fundus autofluosescence. The effect seems to be most pronounced in IR mode.

The confocal tonal shift also has the potential to create tonal “artifacts” which can confound the appearance of findings like blood or hemorrhage that inherently appear dark.  Vitreous opacities will appear dark because they are usually out of focus and blocked by the confocal pinhole. But are they from blood or vitreous debris? It’s impossible to tell with the cSLO since they appear the same even though one is translucent and one is more opaque when viewed ophthalmoscopically or with a fundus camera.

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Vitreous debris can appear very dark in cSLO images even though it is almost completely transparent. Without a frame of reference, it is impossible to know if these dark areas represent floaters or vitreous hemorrhage.

Similarly, it is difficult to distinguish between blood and elevation within retinal tissues in conditions such as macular degeneration, retinal vein occlusions and diabetic macular edema.

Patient with bilateral diabetic macular edema (DME). There are some associated dot and blot hemorrhages present, but the dark patches are a result of elevation from the DME. Each of these dark areas correspond to elevation on OCT.
Branch retinal vein occlusion (BRVO). The dramatic dark lesion is a result of both hemorrhage and elevation.

It is important to note that elevated lesions can appear dark regardless of the pathologic location in the fundus.  cSLO imaging alone can’t always differentiate the anatomic location. OCT imaging or angiography may be necessary to further investigate the location of the pathology.

Left: choroidal tumor. Right: serous retinal detachment. Two very different disease processes but they appear quite similar because of the confoccal shift.

In some cases, the the confocal pinhole may suppress light that is reflected from the actual plane of focus, but is slightly blurred because of scattering from a lesion in tissue that is normally clear.

IR imaging with the cSLO can help identify paracentral acute middle maculopathy (PAMM). Although these lesions aren’t elevated, light scatter from the slight thickening in the middle retinal layers are suppressed by the confocal pinhole making the lesionappear dark. The findings are far more subtle in the color fundus photographs.

Although originally designed to image the retina, the cSLO can also be used to image the front of the eye. The confocal tonal shift may also effect the appearance of some anterior segment findings.

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Patient with iris atrophy. The cSLO is focused on the surface of the iris which make these dark brown irides appear light at the plane of focus. The dark areas represent absence or thinning of the anterior iris surface. The deeper, out-of-focus, layers appear dark.

In addition to the confocal shift, light scattering from some corneal lesion types may also be suppressed by the pinhole contributing to the dark appearance of the lesion.

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Corneal opacities shown with diffuse illumination and sclerotic scatter at the slit lamp. The cSLO image on the right more clearly delineates the extent of the lesion. Focus is at the level of the iris with the cornea being out of focus. Where the cornea is clear, there is no blocking effect from the confocal pinhole. But where there is scatter and reflectivity from the (out-of-focus) corneal lesion, this light is rejected by the confocal pinhole causing the dark appearance.

It is important to understand the confocal density shift when capturing or interpreting cSLO images and differentiate between structures that truly are dark from those that are simply out-of-focus. In some cases the tonal shift enhances areas of interest that may not be easily identified by other means. In others it may confound the documentation of blood  or hemorrhage. A second imaging modality such as color fundus photography, OCT or angiography is often needed to present a more complete diagnostic imaging study.

Here are a few more examples:

Diabetic macular edema (DME) appears dark on the IR image from the tonal shift and corresponds to the red (increased thickness) area on the OCT false-color thickness map.
Left: cystoid macular edema (CME). Right: central serous chorioretinopathy.
Dark lesions on two separate patients diagnosed with one of the phakomatoses. Left: a patient with tuberous sclerosis and multiple hamartomas that appear dark from elevation. Right: a retinal hemangioma in von Hippel-Lindau disease. This blood filled lesion is dark from the blood itself rather than elevation
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This case represents a rare exception to the tonal shift in an elevated lesion. Adjusting the focus up and down had little effect on the tonal density, except at the borders of the lesion. Note the very high reflectivity of the inner retina on OCT. Presumably the reflective surface of the elevated area was bright enough to attenuate the normal confocal shift.

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