"Radiologists are like abstract expressionists," says Alexander Tsiaras, the LIFE magazine photographer whose work illustrates this issue's cover story on advances in medical imaging. "They have a special talent for looking at a fragment of information in two dimensions and extrapolating it to three. In their mind's eye, they can create a whole from a single section or slice."
Mr. Tsiaras' art is more dazzling to the eye than the workaday images that radiologists use to diagnose disease and guide treatment. But advances in imaging technology, a field that traces its origins to the discovery of the X-ray in 1895, are closing the gap between the often-cryptic images that are a radiologist's stock-in-trade and the artistís more comprehensible, if less concrete, rendering of anatomy.
Working with specialists in other disciplines–surgery, neurology, psychiatry, computer science, physics, photography and the graphic arts–radiologists are developing ways to better visualize the body, its structures and its metabolism. New techniques such as helical CT, PET and functional MRI (See An Imaging Glossary), and the overlaying of these images into composites, are beginning to resemble the high-tech special effects of Hollywood.
"Art and diagnostic imaging converge daily and will do so increasingly in the next century," says department Chair Bruce L. McClennan, M.D. "There's a long tradition of artists who combine physical reality with the ideal, and the desire to find beauty in the real world as it exists in flesh and blood."
It is this last quality, says surgery Chair Ronald C. Merrell, M.D., that distinguishes Mr. Tsiaras' data-derived images from the work of many artists. "You can go back to his original image and reinterpret it yourself. Itís all there in his database." This highly graphic and accessible presentation of anatomy, he adds, provides a common language for imaging specialists and surgeons. "His visualization of actual structures could be enlightening to diagnostic radiologists, and his translation of radiographic images makes radiology far more comprehensible to surgeons. It could potentially do some great good."
Mr. Tsiaras spent six months last year collaborating with the Department of Surgery, through a grant from NASA, to promote the visualization of abstract disease processes and human anatomy. He is the founder and principal in the New York City-based Anatomical Travelogue, and the author of Body Voyage: A Three-Dimensional Tour of a Real Human Body (1997, Warner Books).