How high-tech approach may reshape the autopsy

Boosters of so-called virtual autopsy say it has the potential to revolutionize the practice of forensic pathology and could help increase the share of U.S. deaths subject to medical autopsy.

The technique involves the use of computed tomography, magnetic resonance imaging, and three-dimensional surface scanning technology to help resolve tricky forensic questions such as whether a woman was killed with a hammer or a bicycle wrench. The 3D scanning can help provide a “morphological footprint” to gauge against any kind of instrument that could have inflicted the damage, said Michael J. Thali, MD, chair of the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. About 500 virtual autopsies have been conducted at the institute, Dr. Thali said in a June 8, 2013 lecture before the Royal Society of Medicine in London.

Postmortem imaging using CT and MRI—the former is better for evaluating skeletal injuries, while the latter excels with soft-tissue evaluation—can help give a 3D visualization of these blunt-force injuries, Dr. Thali said. He and his colleagues also have used the virtual autopsy approach in cases of strangulation, knife wounds, and more.

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