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Virtual cadavers bring learning to life at SFU

December 04, 2019
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By Diane Mar-Nicolle

For the first time, anatomy students in SFU’s Department of Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology are examining and dissecting the human body using an avatar.

The avatars are in the form of digital cadavers from the world’s premier virtual dissection tool, called the Anatomage Table. The touch-screen table features life-sized digital reconstructions of four actual human cadavers plus thousands of images of animal cadavers, including reptiles, birds and marine life.

Instructor Leanne Ramer says the virtual cadavers offer more detail and information, in a much more flexible and accessible format, than human cadavers. They are the first virtual cadavers to be used in Western Canada.

“The cadavers are from four donors: a Caucasian male and female and a Korean male and female. All of their variations and pathologies are preserved, and students can work with them independently, or on their own time, to dissect each part of the body’s structure, including vasculature, muscle, organs and skin.”

Ramer says the table also contains images of more than 2,000 different clinical cases, including aneurisms, tumours and joint replacements, which can be examined and compared to normal anatomy.

The digital cadavers are meticulously reconstructed from frozen cadavers via the U.S. and Korean National Library of Medicine’s Visible Human Projects. Each cadaver is processed in very thin slices, photographed at high resolution, and digitally reconstructed so that internal structures can be examined from multiple angles.

Students can interact with the touch-screen table, access high-resolution MRI and CT scans, and even set up quizzes for each other.

Graduate student Kyle Dumont says the table improves students’ learning experience.

“Students can attempt to answer their own questions by first exploring with the table’s tools rather than asking the instructor,” he says.

Ramer adds, “Given the dissection capabilities, the variety of pathologies, the breadth and number of cadavers, and the ease of use, this tool has a range of uses and teaching opportunities that no actual cadaver lab can replicate.”

Additionally, the virtual cadavers are chemical free and do not require lab certification and specialized storage.

Ramer is careful to remind students to be respectful of the specimens.

“These images, complete with the donor’s face, come from four people who bequeathed their bodies to science and we must remember to treat them accordingly.”

She hopes to secure funding for two more tables to create an Anatomage Suite. The Suite would accommodate larger classes and SFU’s community outreach programs as well.

“It’s an excellent way to get students from kindergarten through post-secondary excited about anatomy,” she says.