Virtual Autopsy: The Decline of Forensic Dissection?

severed spineThe body of a 50-year-old man run over by a train. Via The Guardian

Gone are the days of forensic autopsy whereby the only means for determining cause of death were by cutting into the cadaver of the victim. Swiss researchers at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Zurich have developed a powerful and pioneering method of virtual imaging, never used in post mortem before; Virtopsy. Prof. Richard Dirnhofer initiated the Virtopsy project several years ago and now, along with operative head of the group Prof. Michael Thali, runs the applied research team which has been operating from the University in Switzerland since 2011.

Combining the uses of optical 3D surface scanning, 3D-photogrammetry, computed tomography (CT), and magnetic resonance (MR) imaging, virtual autopsy is a technique that could not be further from traditional methods of the historical figures of medicine. Virtopsy allows the indefinite storage of collected images and data from the subject which can be re-examined, replicated and distributed at any time, allowing greater accessibility other experts in the field across disciplines and indeed locations. These techniques can be used in living patients to avoid invasive procedures, but the ground breaking aspects of Dirnhofer and Thali’s work lies in the forensic mortuary. Biological tissues, their decomposition and sometimes lack of reliability cannot compete with the ‘snapshot’ evidence taken by these methods, allowing findings to be shared in legal and court cases in a much more modern and interactive way.

The technology allows for the preservation of the deceased in a digital form, escaping the destruction of tissues caused during investigation and decomposition and allows access to areas of a cadaver which may not always prove accessible or appropriate to dissection. For example, the distribution of gas throughout the body is not often observed by the naked eye in traditional autopsy, but with this new technique, gaseous pockets and bubbles can be located quite clearly. It is also of great benefit to forensic autopsy when determining injury from attack by weapons. Scrolling through the layered depths of the victim allows for calculation of weapon length in stab wounds much easier than by traditional methods.

Understandably, virtual autopsy is warmly welcomed by certain religious communities and the families of the deceased who favour this non-invasive method. For the relatives, it allows peace of mind for the dignity and state bodies of their loved ones who have in most circumstances already been through a traumatising and unsettling ordeal.

Given that a deal of technological retraining would be required by investigators if virtual autopsy was rolled out and became a more common means of exploration, would this modern day approach favour the younger generation of forensic professionals? Will virtual autopsies replace traditional forensic examination over time? It is a welcome addition complementary to current investigation, but should we rely completely on such detached methods? Can anything substitute real, hands on exploration of the human body, no matter how advanced the technology and results may be?

Further reading:
www.virtopsy.com
www.guardian.co.uk/science/2013/feb/23/virtual-autopsy-virtopsy-forensic-science
www.independent.co.uk/news/science/body-of-evidence-a-radical-new-approach-to-forensic-pathology-1987389.html
www.spiegel.de/international/europe/new-virtual-autopsy-procedure-is-changing-forensics-a-8756

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