The Digital Anatomist

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Learning anatomy is a formidable challenge for students in the health sciences. It is one of the first subjects tackled by all types of health care professionals during their training; anatomical knowledge is required for distinguishing healthy and diseased states, as well as for designing and administering treatments. But the difficult task of gaining a detailed knowledge of the body's gross and fine structures now can be aided by use of the computer, thanks to the efforts of a group of UW researchers.

The Digital Anatomist Program at the UW is concerned with the representation of anatomical knowledge in a computerized format. Two- and three-dimensional computer graphics images developed in the program provide a new window on either individual organs or groups of anatomical features. These "smart" atlases may aid students in gaining a three-dimensional, dynamic understanding of the body by permitting them to dissect tissues on the screen, put the structures together again, and pose questions.

The Interactive Atlas of Thoracic Viscera, for example, presents computer-generated, animated 3-D reconstructions of organs in the thoracic region (chest), along with a variety of 2-D information, including images of reconstructions, anatomical sections, and medical images such as x-ray or computerized axial tomography scans ("CT" or "CAT" scans). The atlas was developed by Cornelius Rosse, UW professor of biological structure, and David Conley, UW research scientist, based upon cryosections (frozen thin sections) of an actual cadaver prepared by Wolfgang Rauschning of Uppsala University, Sweden. Software development for the project was carried out by James F. Brinkley, Krag Eno, and Jeffrey Prothero.

"The presentation of the anatomical data in the reconstructions is unique," say the researchers, "in that it displays spatial interrelationships between organs in ways that are not possible to achieve by dissection or by current imaging technology." footnote 1 Collaborating with Rosse and Conley were radiology professors Thurman Gillespy III and J. David Godwin, as well as John R. Bolles of the UW Health Sciences Center for Educational Resources.

The Digital Anatomist methods are being developed with education as the primary target, but these same tools are finding applications in the clinical setting as well. For example, research is also in progress to refine radiation treatment plans using the tools. In another application, project investigators are collaborating with UW neurological surgery professor Ojemann and colleagues in developing an information system for mapping language areas of the brain (see Brain Mapping).

Nearly 1,000 copies of Digital Anatomist atlases on videodisc and CD-ROM of three different regions of the body have been distributed by the program as of March 1996. In addition, the program has been a pioneer in distance learning by providing online access to its image databases. As many as 25,000 users per day access the Digital Anatomist from over 70 countries via the World Wide Web.

In 1995, based on a survey of some 240,000 programs on the World Wide Web, Point Survey, New York rated the Digital Anatomist among the top 5% of the "most exciting home pages." And in January 1996, the program received the Multimedia Medical Reference Library's Exceptional Resource Award.

Online information may be obtained at the following addresses:
Email address: digital_anatomist@biostr.washington.edu
World Wide Web address: http://www1.biostr.washington.edu/DigitalAnatomist.html

  1. "The Digital Anatomist: Interactive Atlas of Thoracic Viscera," available from Health Sciences Center for Educational Resources, Box 357161, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195-7161, (206) 685-1186.

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