Visible Human Project

A prisoner in Texas spent his life as a drug abuser, alcoholic, robber and killer. In 1993 the state of Texas injected him with lethal chemicals and took his life away. Through a federally funded project called “The Visible Human the prisoner (who had willed his body to science) was digitized and put on the World Wide Web for all to see. Gray’s Anatomy has been replaced and medicine will never be the same again.

A teacher in a Colorado school uses the Visible Human to let his students see a body in a way that has never been seen before. Instead of dissecting a frog, they can dissect a human being on the Internet. There’s no smell and no blood.

The technology used to create the Visible Human is quite amazing. After the body was frozen high resolution CCD photographs (2,000 x 2,000) and CT scans were taken from “head to toe”. After each series a millimeter was milled away. For the Visible Man there were 1,878 “slices” and for the Visible Woman (milled every 1/3 of a millimeter) nearly 5,000 “slices”. The resulting data captured was used to reconstruct or “reverse engineer” the human body. Each voxel of data can now have meta data attached to it which can include characteristics of that part of the body. Examples might include consistency, color, resistance to a needle, friction toward a scalpel, etc. Current technology is yielding approximately 2 billion voxels1 for the body. With 12 bytes of meta data per voxel the characteristics of the entire body could potentially be represented in just 24 gigabytes of data.

Now that a human body has been reengineered it will become possible to perform human simulations; i.e. moving a muscle or emitting blood after a scalpel cuts through the skin. Future possibilities are boundless. We will be able to age and de-age the Visible Human, amputate an arm, add a torn ligament, introduce a heart attack or throw in a bullet wound. Doctors will be able to perform angioplasty insertions and actually experience the feel that would have been present if he or she were inserting into the arm of the Texas prisoner. Kinetic models based on real human data will surely lead to artificial knees that someday may run a marathon. Perhaps with enough computing power the Visible Human will be made to sit or walk or run opening up amazing simulation possibilities for sports medicine and saving of lives.

If all this becomes possible what are the implications? Wired Magazine had a story that described in great deal why BMUS (Beam Me Up Scottie) would not be possible. I am not so sure since I have learned about the Visible Human project. If a voxel is actually a subatomic voxel and the meta data includes every possible aspect of state and if a simulation can enable the Visible Human to move then could a scanning technology be developed to capture living voxels which could then be teleported? Still not something in the foreseeable future but thinking about the Visible Human project makes me think that someday BMUS may actually happen. Let’s see, now where would I like to get beamed up to?

You can learn more about the Visible Human at www.nlm.nih.gov/research .

1 A voxel is point in three dimensional space with a defined x, y, z position, color, and density.