We investigate the various contrast mechanisms provided by polarization-sensitive (PS) Mueller-matrix optical coherence tomography (OCT). Our PS multichannel Mueller-matrix OCT is the first, to our knowledge, to offer simultaneously comprehensive polarization-contrast mechanisms, including the amplitude of birefringence, the orientation of birefringence, and the diattenuation in addition to the polarization-independent intensity contrast, all of which can be extracted from the measured Jones or the equivalent Mueller matrix. Theoretical analysis shows that when diattenuation is negligible, the round-trip Jones matrix represents a linear retarder, which is the foundation of conventional PS-OCT, and can be calculated with a single incident polarization state, although the one-way Jones matrix generally represents an elliptical retarder; otherwise, two incident polarization states are needed. The experimental results obtained from rat skin samples, which conform well with the histology, show that Mueller OCT provides complementary structural and functional information on biological samples and reveal that polarization contrast is more sensitive to thermal degeneration of biological tissue than amplitude-based contrast. Thus, Mueller OCT has significant potential for application in the noninvasive assessment of burn depth.
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