We introduce an application of thermionic emission in a PMT photocathode. Because of the nonlinear dependence of thermionic emission on absorbed laser power, a conventional PMT is found to produce a virtual pinhole effect that rejects unfocused light at least as strongly as a physical pinhole. This virtual pinhole effect is exploited in a scanning transmission confocal microscope equipped with a cw laser source. Because the area of the PMT photocathode is large, signal descanning is not required and thermionic detection acts as a self-aligned pinhole. Our technique of thermionic-detection autoconfocal microscopy is further implemented with graded-field contrast to obtain enhanced phase-gradient sensitivity in unlabeled samples, such as rat hippocampal brain slices.
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