As a graduate student taking medical school anatomy, my first experience with a human cadaver was both profoundly awe-inspiring and emotionally heavy. It was the first time in my life where I was able to dissect a formerly living being, let alone a human being. I learned so much from that time that I considered the person who donated their body my first true teacher of anatomy. Today, medical schools around the globe have taught human anatomy this way for centuries, yet now we are confronted with, dare I say, a better alternative?
Enter the virtual cadaver. Many companies are jumping on board with rapidly expanding technology that allows us to visualize the human body like never before, on a scale of detail rarely seen before. The press has also taken notice of this potentially game-changing advance in medical education.1 According to these reports, the need for human cadavers and body donation will be a thing of the past. Or will it?
Now I don’t doubt the validity of having virtual models for the teaching of complex or minute portions of anatomy, but when paired with the real thing, the results are undeniable. Some have conducted small studies on the effectiveness of certain 3D models in anatomical education, saying that for certain structures such as the inner ear, 3D models improve quiz scores, although some may question the size of samples.2 Yet since much of the new technology has only become recently available to medical schools in the form of simulated cadavers3,4 (Anatomage, Anatomedia) the amount of hard data backing up the effectiveness of this type of visual learning is scant. But through common sense, one doesn’t need to stretch the imagination to see how it can enhance anatomical knowledge. The issue I have encountered is the possibility that some institutions are deciding whether or not to do away with with real cadavers all together.
Having been through medical human anatomy, I can account for the value of learning from real cadavers. In my opinion, the amount of subtle nuances picked up in the feel of the tissues cannot be replaced by any virtual replication. One example of this is learning the path of the cranial nerves, many of which are almost too small to see with the naked eye in a cadaver. But feeling the bone, and soft tissue structures that encompass these nerves, you get a real sense of the three-dimensional environment these nerves exist in. In addition, extremely fragile nerves and vessels can be felt or moved out of the way, to get a sense of how the fibers or branches are arranged and their density (especially in the cauda equina, the end of the spinal cord with has many thread-like nerve fibers splaying out from the main cord). You can get some of these views in virtual cadavers, but (as of my current knowledge) they are static views with limited interaction for moving or looking around or just beside structures. The entire sense of touch/tactile feel is removed, therefore limiting the intensity of the experience students have with anatomical structures. Now, I do feel that combining real dissection with virtual cadavers can greatly enhance anatomical knowledge, especially when the dataset loaded in to one of these virtual cadaver “tables” is the same individual they are dissecting. I have no doubt the literature will show this fact in the near future. Now for institutions who cannot obtain human cadavers, these virtual models are essential to teach students medical anatomy and should be utilized to fill the gap in direct anatomical dissection. But for the value of the human cadaver, there can be no question.
1. Can Virtual Reality Replace the Cadaver Lab? (n.d.). Retrieved May 08, 2016, from http://www.centerdigitaled.com/higher-ed/Can-Virtual-Reality-Replace-the-Cadaver-Lab-CDE.html
2. Nicholson, D. T., Chalk, C., Funnell, W. R., & Daniel, S. J. (2006). Can virtual reality improve anatomy education? A randomised controlled study of a computer-generated three-dimensional anatomical ear model. Med Educ Medical Education, 40(11), 1081-1087. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2929.2006.02611.x
3. An All-in-One, Touch-Interactive Display System. (n.d.). Retrieved May 08, 2016, from http://medical.anatomage.com/medical-products/anatomage-table
4. An@tomedia Online. (n.d.). Retrieved May 08, 2016, from http://anatomediaonline.com/