Artificial intelligence technology helps virtual autopsies outnumber invasive post-mortem procedures

Forensic imaging, augmented reality headsets and artificial intelligence could reduce the need for invasive autopsies and save families from further trauma, according to the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine (VIFM).

In many cases, forensic pathologists can perform “virtual autopsies” to determine the cause of death, says VIFM deputy director Richard Bassed.

Images are generated using CT scans that can examine a dead body and gather sensitive, specific and accurate information about it.

“Physical autopsies take time, are stressful for families, and there are many religious and cultural reasons why people don’t want an autopsy in any particular case,” Dr Bassed said.

“And they’re expensive, so anything we can do to reduce the number of autopsies without compromising the validity and accuracy of the work is a good thing.”

Monash University PhD student Vahid Pooryousef created a prototype using an augmented reality (AR) headset that allows the user to see the room around them.

The technology means a pathologist with a headset can dissect a virtual 3D projection of the body while viewing the physical body in the morgue, along with relevant police or medical reports.

Dr Bassed said the headset and imaging technology were already there and the project was a way for pathologists to easily interact with the images and determine the cause of death.

Imaging is already reducing autopsies

Technology has already drastically reduced the need for autopsies in Victoria.

Before the introduction of a CT scanner at VIFM in 2005, almost all cases required an autopsy, said Dr. Bassed.

Today, autopsies are required in less than half of cases.

Dr Bassed believes that using a combination of AR and artificial intelligence (AI) technology could reduce this rate even further.

“I doubt we’ll ever get to zero, but that’s the holy grail — that everything in forensics is done by imaging alone,” he said.

CT scanner, a little white machine shaped like a donut with a bed that can go inside a hole.  In the clinical white room
VIFM has had this CT scanner since 2005.(Supplied by: VIFM)

Learning for real-world use

Dr Bassed was inspired to explore AR virtual autopsies four years ago when his colleagues took him to the Vision Lab at Monash University.

They used virtual reality headsets to teach anatomy to medical students.

“You would get a 3D version of the heart sitting in the air and you could dissect it with your fingers,” he said.

“I thought it would be fantastic if we could do it with real dead people in the morgue.

A man in a light blue suit and a white checkered shirt in front of a library
Richard Bassed explores how technology can be used to reduce the need for physical autopsies.(ABC News: Matilda Marozzi)

Now the first prototypes are completed and Dr. Bassed hopes to showcase the technology at VIFM in the next two to three years.

“It gives you more flexibility with what you’re looking at … than seeing it on a two-dimensional screen,” he said.

You get a much better view of reality.

“For example, if someone comes in with a knife in their chest, you have to go through every single cut on the 2D screen to see where the knife is going.

“But in the 3D reconstruction, you can see exactly where the knife went.

Diagnosis established by AI

Dr Bassed is also working on a project that could see artificial intelligence interpret post-mortem scans and automatically diagnose problems.


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