Evaluating feasibility of functional near-infrared spectroscopy in dolphins

Alexander Ruesch, Deepshikha Acharya, Eli Bulger, Jiaming Cao, J Christopher McKnight, Mercy Manley, Andreas Fahlman, Barbara G Shinn-Cunningham, Jana M Kainerstorfer*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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SIGNIFICANCE Using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) in bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) could help to understand how echolocating animals perceive their environment and how they focus on specific auditory objects, such as fish, in noisy marine settings.

AIM To test the feasibility of near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) in medium-sized marine mammals, such as dolphins, we modeled the light propagation with computational tools to determine the wavelengths, optode locations, and separation distances that maximize sensitivity to brain tissue.

APPROACH Using frequency-domain NIRS, we measured the absorption and reduced scattering coefficient of dolphin sculp. We assigned muscle, bone, and brain optical properties from the literature and modeled light propagation in a spatially accurate and biologically relevant model of a dolphin head, using finite-element modeling. We assessed tissue sensitivities for a range of wavelengths (600 to 1700 nm), source-detector distances (50 to 120 mm), and animal sizes (juvenile model 25% smaller than adult).

RESULTS We found that the wavelengths most suitable for imaging the brain fell into two ranges: 700 to 900 nm and 1100 to 1150 nm. The optimal location for brain sensing positioned the center point between source and detector 30 to 50 mm caudal of the blowhole and at an angle 45 deg to 90 deg lateral off the midsagittal plane. Brain tissue sensitivity comparable to human measurements appears achievable only for smaller animals, such as juvenile bottlenose dolphins or smaller species of cetaceans, such as porpoises, or with source-detector separations ≫100  mm in adult dolphins.

CONCLUSIONS Brain measurements in juvenile or subadult dolphins, or smaller dolphin species, may be possible using specialized fNIRS devices that support optode separations of >100  mm. We speculate that many measurement repetitions will be required to overcome hemodynamic signals originating predominantly from the muscle layer above the skull. NIRS measurements of muscle tissue are feasible today with source-detector separations of 50 mm, or even less.

Original languageEnglish
Article number075001
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Biomedical Optics
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 13 Jul 2023


  • Humans
  • Animals
  • Adult
  • Bottle-Nosed Dolphin/physiology
  • Spectroscopy, Near-Infrared
  • Feasibility Studies
  • Head


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