Brain and Body

Dead Body Sliced 5,000 Times to Create “Virtual Human”

October 1, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Sliced cross-section of a human body
Photo credit: The Visible Human Project

Scientists created the most detailed reconstruction of the human body ever made by using ultrathin slices of cadavers.

Trigger warning: if you just ate, we don’t recommend reading any further.

Thousands of people donate their bodies to science each year, and most are used for anatomic studies at medical schools. However, a man and woman who donated their bodies to science decades ago probably never imagined how their bodies would end up being used. The project, which sounds like it came straight out of a sci-fi horror film, entailed carving each of their bodies into thousands of thin slices.

The Visible Human Project took on the task of creating the world’s most detailed digital body by documenting a comprehensive collection of cross-sectional images. The male’s frozen cadaver was dissected into 1-mm-thick slices, and the woman’s even thinner — just one-third of a millimeter. With these detailed images, the scientists created a 3D “human phantom” that will help accomplish VHP’s goal of transforming medical education.

SEE ALSO: Holograms May Reduce the Need for Cadavers in Med School

“They have ten times as much information as you’d get from an MRI scan,” Dr. Fernando Bello of Imperial College London told New Scientist. “It means the team will have much more information about organs and their structuring.”

Basically, the new virtual human will grant researchers and medical practitioners a revolutionized way to study anatomy. The digital body will allow for virtual experiments that would be too dangerous to try out on a live human body. Human studies are also time-consuming and costly, so the virtual human offers an authentic alternative.

Virtually anyone can download the high-resolution images to their computers for the purpose of conducting research — and the data is shared free of charge. It’s already being used for various studies, like breast cancer treatments and the long-term effects of cell phone use.

So, these two frozen cadavers have made incredible strides in the journey toward better understanding the human body. Not much is known about the woman other than that she was a 59-year-old obese woman from Maryland who died of heart failure. Since the world is seeing an increasing number of lives being lost to obesity, her body was particularly relevant to the project. Plus, since it’s completely digitized, the researchers were able to create virtual versions that were thinner, with less skin and fat.

The male, however, had more of a rocky past. Joseph Paul Jernigan was convicted of murder in Texas, and sentenced to death by lethal injection at 39-years-old. After speaking to a prison chaplain, he agreed to donate his body to science after his life was taken.

The first “digital Frankenstein” was created in 1994, but the initiative has certainly come a long way since then. The Visible Human Project sheds light on just how much progress can be made with bodies that are donated to science. It may give you goosebumps imagining 5,000 slices through flesh and bone, but scientific cadavers can foster groundbreaking discoveries that contribute to the greater good.

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