Fluorescence Imaging of Nerves During Surgery

Ann Surg. 2019 Jul;270(1):69-76. doi: 10.1097/SLA.0000000000003130.


Objective: This review details the agents for fluorescence-guided nerve imaging in both preclinical and clinical use to identify factors important in selecting nerve-specific fluorescent agents for surgical procedures.

Background: Iatrogenic nerve injury remains a significant cause of morbidity in patients undergoing surgical procedures. Current real-time identification of nerves during surgery involves neurophysiologic nerve stimulation, which has practical limitations. Intraoperative fluorescence-guided imaging provides a complimentary means of differentiating tissue types and pathology. Recent advances in fluorescence-guided nerve imaging have shown promise, but the ideal agent remains elusive.

Methods: In February 2018, PubMed was searched for articles investigating peripheral nerve fluorescence. Key terms used in this search include: "intraoperative, nerve, fluorescence, peripheral nerve, visualization, near infrared, and myelin." Limits were set to exclude articles exclusively dealing with central nervous system targets or written in languages other than English. References were cross-checked for articles not otherwise identified.

Results: Of the nonspecific agents, tracers that rely on axonal transport showed the greatest tissue specificity; however, neurovascular dyes already enjoy wide clinical use. Fluorophores specific to nerve moieties result in excellent nerve to background ratios. Although noteworthy findings on tissue specificity, toxicity, and route of administration specific to each fluorescent agent were reported, significant data objectively quantifying nerve-specific fluorescence and toxicity are lacking.

Conclusions: Fluorescence-based nerve enhancement has advanced rapidly over the past 10 years with potential for continued utilization and progression in translational research. An ideal agent would be easily administered perioperatively, would not cross the blood-brain barrier, and would fluoresce in the near-infrared spectrum. Agents administered systemically that target nerve-specific moieties have shown the greatest promise. Based on the heterogeneity of published studies and methods for reporting outcomes, it appears that the development of an optimal nerve imaging agent remains challenging.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Contrast Media
  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Humans
  • Intraoperative Care / methods*
  • Optical Imaging / methods*
  • Organ Specificity
  • Peripheral Nerves / diagnostic imaging*
  • Sensitivity and Specificity


  • Contrast Media
  • Fluorescent Dyes