CT and MRI scans are typically used for diagnostic purposes and there are numerous programs (e.g. Osirix) out there dedicated to computing the data from these scans and turning it into interactive 3D images. But, if CT and MRI scans can be used on the living, why not use them on the deceased? It just so happens that the winner of the 2006 Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge used a high-resolution CT scanner to generate 2D scans of a 2000 year old mummy that were used to create a 3D model of the mummy and its interior. From the scan researchers were able to reveal that the mummy contained the remains of a 4 or 5-year-old girl who had no signs of trauma or long-term disease. They suspected that she must have died unexpectedly, probably from an infectious disease.

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Virtual autopsies are starting to be used as a precursor to the physical kind. The Pentagon has already used this technology on the remains of soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan to determine the effectiveness of helmets and body armor for protection. Forensic investigators in Sweden and Switzerland have performed numerous virtual autopsies on murder victims and are working to perfect the technique. Medical examiners from all over the world, including the U.S. have taken interest.

The benefit of using CT and MRI to create full-body scans of the deceased is that it is non-invasive. Full-body 3D images generated from the scans can be easily be manipulated by zooming in, cropping, and rotating in any direction, something not possible by physical autopsy. In murder victims, bullet paths can instantly be found and the extent of knife wounds easily visualized. This would normally take hours through physical autopsy.

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Another benefit of using virtual autopsy, or Virtopsy, is the permanency of the data. Physical autopsies need to be performed soon after death to get an accurate evaluation of the cause of death. With virtual autopsy scans can be performed quickly and the data would be there to be used weeks, months, or even years later. And the data can provide powerful evidence in the courtroom without using graphic images from the real body.

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Knife wound to the heart: autopsy and MRI finding

Virtual autopsy can also be used in cultures where physical autopsy is not permitted by custom or religion. Since virtual autopsy does not mutilate the body in any way, the body can be preserved in its natural state.

What about cost? Powerful imaging equipment can be extremely costly, but while traditional autopsies cost an average of $4,000 each, virtual autopsies cost around $1,000 each. This means that virtual autopsies can actually cut the cost of autopsies and ease the financial burden on hospitals and families.

Researchers in this area predict that within the next 10 to 20 years, physical autopsies will be replaced by the virtual autopsy.

The pace at which medical imaging is advancing is incredible. The impact of this type of medical imaging on medical illustration will result in the most accurate illustrations and animations ever created. Because of this, future generations are going to have the benefit of having the most complete understanding of the human body.

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Images via RSNA