Super-resolution ultrasound localization microscopy (ULM), based on localization and tracking of individual microbubbles (MBs), offers unprecedented microvascular imaging resolution at clinically relevant penetration depths. However, ULM is currently limited by the requirement of dilute MB concentrations to ensure spatially sparse MB events for accurate localization and tracking. The corresponding long imaging acquisition times (tens of seconds or several minutes) to accumulate sufficient isolated MB events for full reconstruction of microvasculature preclude the clinical translation of the technique. To break this fundamental tradeoff between acquisition time and MB concentration, in this paper we propose to separate spatially overlapping MB events into sub-populations, each with sparser MB concentration, based on spatiotemporal differences in the flow dynamics (flow speeds and directions). MB localization and tracking are performed for each sub-population separately, permitting more robust ULM imaging of high-concentration MB injections. The superiority of the proposed MB separation technique over conventional ULM processing is demonstrated in flow channel phantom data, and in the chorioallantoic membrane of chicken embryos with optical imaging as an in vivo reference standard. Substantial improvement of ULM is further demonstrated on a chicken embryo tumor xenograft model and a chicken brain, showing both morphological and functional microvasculature details at super-resolution within a short acquisition time (several seconds). The proposed technique allows more robust MB localization and tracking at relatively high MB concentrations, alleviating the need for dilute MB injections, and thereby shortening the acquisition time of ULM imaging and showing great potential for clinical translation.
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