Virtual Anatomy

Researchers at the University of Michigan are taking the science of anatomy into the simulated 3-D world.
Virtual tools like this table-sized tablet at U-M help students better understand the science of anatomy.

To better improve patient outcomes and provide a more robust learning environment within the health care sector, the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, in collaboration with 3-D developers on campus, have created an anatomically correct, virtual-reality cadaver to improve how anatomy instruction is delivered across the country’s colleges and, eventually, around the world.

Developed via a computer model that assembled individual digitized organs and appendages into an overall body, the virtual 3-D cadaver — designed to resemble a floating hologram — provides an array of options for anatomy students, staff lecturers, doctors, and medical personnel.

Using the new technology, U-M anatomy lab participants equipped with special 3-D viewing glasses and joystick controls can better simulate precise medical incisions, hone in on specific areas of interest using expanded view features, and delve deep into computer-generated muscle tissue.

Programmed options also allow those manipulating any portion of the virtual creation to reverse, start over, or repeat simulated medical exercises.
Dr. Alexandre F. DaSilva, an assistant professor at the Biologic and Materials Sciences Department at the University of Michigan Dental School, says the anatomically correct 3-D rendering of the human form provides a “wow factor” that significantly enhances the learning experience for doctoral students accustomed to routine anatomy lectures and lab training.

“Our students, after traditional lab, can go to the 3-D environment and dissect a hovering human body with a joystick, cutting through different layers of structures in uncommon angles and expanding the areas of interest, or effortlessly (rotate) it,” DaSilva says.

DaSilva, also director of the dental school’s Headache and Orofacial Pain Effort (HOPE) and the Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute, believes virtual 3-D replicas of the brains of actual patients in pain prove invaluable whenever explaining intricate neurological symptoms to future medical practitioners.
“Instead of simply explaining to students the neurological effects of a migraine in the brain on a slide, we let them navigate in 3-D through the brain of a migraine patient floating in the air with real data,” DaSilva says. “This is certainly a more interactive way to learn.”

Hoping to share their virtual anatomical design capabilities well beyond Ann Arbor, the U-M virtual anatomical team is working to deliver best practice techniques and specialized knowledge to a host of other academic institutions and clinical environments. “The more students, researchers, technicians, and doctors have access to the technology, the better it will be for everyone,” DaSilva says.