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Handy interactive web resources provide 3D options for studying blood and bones

By Elizabeth Boyle

Aug. 30, 2011


Memorizing the name and location of the human hand’s 29 bones or understanding the arm’s intricate network of veins and arteries may now be a bit easier with a new, free resource that offers students an interactive way to study human anatomy.

The website, published by the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, presents PDFs and videos showing 3D visualizations of human anatomical structures. With the click of a mouse, users can spin each structure around in any direction, zoom in and out, turn on or off individual bones or soft tissues, or even make certain features transparent.

Ultimately, the goal is to put the user in control of what aspects of anatomy they want to see,” explained Chang Ying-Chien Professor of Paleontology and Professor of Anatomy Lawrence Witmer. “It provides an extra means for the students to really engage with the material.”

Witmer, whose research lab developed the visualizations, said that while OHIO medical students are already taking advantage of the tools, he expects anyone from high school biology teachers to undergrad anatomy students to make use of them. They are freely available and can be downloaded in several resolution sizes, meaning that once a student or teacher has accessed them online they can use them anywhere their computer can go. The PDFs require nothing more than the free Adobe Acrobat Reader, and the videos can run on Apple’s freely downloadable QuickTime.

“High school biology classes will probably really like the skeletal stuff because they learn the bones, which are labeled in the visualizations,” he explained.

For now, users can study a hand, arm or skull, but the scientist plans to add more options. (He also offers an educational 3D visualization of an alligator as a result of a collaborative project with the University of Missouri.) And while students might find similar, commercialized options of comparable tools online, those often rely on computer models generated by graphic artists. The medical school’s visualizations, which are derived from actual human bodies, offer a closer parallel with real life

To accomplish that, Witmer and his team worked in partnership O’Bleness Memorial Hospital. They injected the veins and arteries of a human cadaver provided as part of the medical school’s Body Donor Program with various substances that show up under a CT scan, which produces a series of X-rays taken from many angles. With the help of research associate Ryan Ridgely and doctoral students William Porter and Ashley Morhardt, the group combined the scans with animation software to generate the 3D visualizations.

The painstaking process is well worth it, Witmer said. It’s something he often does in the course of research on prehistoric animals. In fact, the National Science Foundation has funded many of those projects as well as the technology he uses for the visualizations. Additional funding for the human anatomy visualizations was supplied by OU-HCOM.

“The software that we use costs thousands of dollars, and it takes us a long time to create these in a way that anyone, anywhere can use them without having to invest in the hardware and software,” Witmer said. “But it helps train our medical students, plus it’s open-access, which means that people all over the world can make use of it. It’s just a tremendously interactive tool that we’re basically giving away.”

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Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine
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Last updated: 01/28/2016