Exploring the depths of the human body is one of the hallmarks of the first year of medical school. Through new computer software that offers three-dimensional views of human anatomy, Yale students can now dissect the body with the click of a mouse.

The new computer teaching tool provides a complement to standard anatomy training in the cadaver lab. Based on data from the National Library of Medicine’s Visible Human Project, the software called the Divisible Human allows students to view three different images of the same body part simultaneously on a computer monitor. “This is the first time that the Visible Human data has been available in a form where students can actually manipulate and learn something from it,” said William B. Stewart, Ph.D., associate professor of surgery and section chief for anatomy and experimental surgery. “What one can do is pick a plane and dissect into it. From the anatomist’s point of view one of the most critical skills you can teach students is how to reason and problem solve in three dimensions.”

“The difference in technology between moving from plane to plane and true animation is extraordinary,” said John A. Paton, Ph.D., director of academic computing at the school, describing the software developed by Shane Dunne, Ph.D., a computer scientist from Kingston, Ontario. “It means people can explore much more effectively than they could before.” Adds Dr. Stewart “This is the way that in the future they will be viewing radiology.” Dr. Stewart is the first anatomy instructor in the country to use the software and also has developed laboratory exercises to use with it.

The new software allows access to cross-sectional slice images of the anatomy, at any orientation and in any combination. Although each slice image is two-dimensional, the program presents multiple slices in a three-dimensional format which clearly illustrates relative position and orientation. Other commercial and academic software using the visible human allow access only in two dimensions, in standard orientations and much more slowly. And while most programs tend to be difficult to learn, Dr. Dunne says his software is “as quick and easy to use as a video game.”