Virtual Autopsies Provide New Insights into Death

PHOTO: A radiologist looks at the scans of a reconstituted corpse in 3D in order to proceed in a virtual autopsy on September 20, 2011 at the Medical Imagery Departement of the Timone Hospital in Marseille, France.

A couple is sitting at the breakfast table when the wife suddenly complains about a severe headache. She jumps up, screams and collapses. But only when she stops breathing at around noon does her husband call an ambulance.

For the investigating criminologists, this case of unbelievable heartlessness raised one question above all: What could the man have done to his wife? Their surprising conclusion was that he did nothing, and that he was only guilty of a shocking lack of interest in his partner.

Forensic scientists with the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Zurich in Switzerland diagnosed blood in the cerebrospinal fluid as well as a small aneurysm that had burst in the woman's head, which indicated that she had died of natural causes.

In another case, the Zurich police searched for the weapon with which a woman had been murdered. The forensic pathologists discovered tiny metal particles in the chin region. That find eventually led the police to the corpus delicti: a kitchen knife.

To solve both cases, it wasn't enough for the forensic scientists to simply cut open the sternum of the dead woman, in accordance with the standard procedure used when conducting a classic internal autopsy. To examine the circumstance of death, they didn't perform an autopsy on the body. Rather, they reviewed three-dimensional images of the dead women they had stored on their computer.

The method, in which forensic scientists combine images from powerful computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) together with surface scans of corpses is called "virtual autopsy."

More Efficient Autopsies

With the help of these combined imaging techniques, experts are now capable of gaining revealing and fascinating insights into the interiors of dead bodies. Most of all, they are finding fractures and hemorrhages that were not discovered during conventional autopsies.

Experts rave about the new method which is, at the very least, expected to complement classic autopsy. The idea is that after imaging a body, radiologists can draw abnormalities they encounter on the screen to the attention of forensic scientists.

"This enables forensic scientists to plan their autopsies much more efficiently," says Dominic Wichmann, a specialist in internal medicine at the University Hospital in Hamburg's Eppendorf district. In a study recently published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, Wichmann praises the benefits of virtual autopsies. Likewise, specialists with the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have been traveling to Switzerland lately to marvel at the computer-aided autopsies being performed at the University of Zurich.

Forensic scientist Michael Thali refers to the suite of devices he developed as "Virtobot." The idea for virtual autopsy began with the murder of a woman and the question of whether the killer had beaten her to death with a hammer or a bicycle wrench.

When he first tried to solve the mystery with the help of a computer, Thali and his staff were still housed in a cold barrack-like building on the campus of the University of Bern. "We were freezing in the winter, with only the computers putting off heat," says radiologist Steffen Ross, a member of the team for many years now.

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