How VR Is Helping Prevent the Need for Cadavers

A high-tech way to learn about the body

  • Thanks to virtual reality, it may no longer be necessary to use real human bodies to study anatomy in medical school. 
  • Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine has developed virtual cadaver software in combination with Microsoft’s VR headset. 
  • VR training is less expensive than using human cadavers.
Two doctors using robotic arms to treat a virtual patient using augmented and virtual reality.

Donald Iain Smith / Getty Images

Virtual reality may soon do away with the need for human cadavers to train medical students in anatomy. 

Case Western Reserve University's School of Medicine is working to reduce the use of human corpses in the anatomy curriculum. Instead, the school is partnering with Microsoft to use HoloLens virtual reality technology and is sharing the tech with other medical schools around the country.

"Unlike the cadaver lab, where the preserved body's colors and textures can make it difficult to discern, say, a nerve from a blood vessel—or to see a lymph node—HoloAnatomy gives students a crystal clear 3-D map of these anatomical structures and their relationships to each other," Mark Griswold, a professor at the CWRU School of Medicine told Lifewire in an email interview. "This provides a great foundation on which first- and second-year medical students can build other critical concepts."

Virtual Bodies

Programmers and 3-D artists worked with the school's anatomy faculty to develop the HoloAnatomy Software Suite, which uses advanced mixed-reality technology to show the human body in three dimensions through the Microsoft HoloLens headset. The university claims that medical students learned anatomical content twice as fast as cadaver dissection.

"The HoloAnatomy Suite represents the future of medical education," Ilumis CEO Mark Day said in the news release. "Now universities can reduce the expensive, time-consuming task of obtaining cadavers, and students can enter a world of new possibilities where they learn faster, retain more vital information, and transcend the classroom with unprecedented collaborative potential."

Robert L. Masson, a neurosurgeon and the CEO of the company eXpanded eXistence, which offers mixed reality for doctors, said in an email interview that VR provides significant advantages over using human cadavers in training. 

"Cadavers are the traditional gold standard, and health care is always reluctant to let go of its history," he said. "That being said, VR is making a very audacious impact on anatomical education both in medical and surgical education."

VR training is less expensive than using cadavers, Masson said. Also, VR and augmented reality AR will let students work at the macro and microscopic level for detailed anatomical education, which is usually separated into two courses, anatomy, and histology. 

Digital tools shouldn't 'replace' humans, but they can play an essential role in helping students acquire critical knowledge.

The Challenges of VR 

Making VR cadavers took a lot of work. The category is still relatively young, so many technical obstacles had to be addressed through custom software solutions, Erin Henninger,  the executive director of Interactive Commons at Case Western Reserve University, said via email. 

"For example, there were no off-the-shelf HoloLens' classroom modules,' or plug-and-play large, shared-group frameworks," Henninger added. "There weren't even experienced mixed reality programmers out in the world—the tech didn't exist before 2014. So our partners at the Interactive Commons at Case Western Reserve University hired a brilliant team and generated innovative technical frameworks to create HoloAnatomy software in-house."

Masson said that one argument against VR was the lack of feeling and texture or three-dimensionality. The solution to this problem has been haptics, a system that stimulates the senses of touch and motion in a computer simulation. 

"Cadavers can still be quite useful but for very specific education opportunities like surgical procedure or technology training, where specific systems or implants need to be implanted on a real body," Masson added. "The advantage of optimizing cadaver use for the best use is obvious given the relative shortage of cadavers equitably, worldwide."

Two students using Virtual reality to view a human skeleton and circulatory system.

Case Western Reserve University

Even with recent advances in VR technology, learning with a headset isn't quite the same thing as a natural human body. VR can provide an immersive experience, but it's challenging to ask your teacher a question when you're wearing a VR headset—they can't see what you're seeing, Day said in an email interview. 

"In mixed reality (MR), the holographic body is in the same spot in the room, and you see it together through the HoloLens headset—it's just like an object in the real world," Day added. "In many medical schools, interacting with cadavers marks the medical student's transition into the immeasurable privilege and responsibility of taking care of the human body; digital tools shouldn't 'replace' humans, but they can play an essential role in helping students acquire critical knowledge."

Update 1/31/2023: Changed paragraph two to more accurately reflect how the CWRU School of Medicine uses cadavers.

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