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CT scanners bring ancient mummies to life

posted 31 Oct 2011, 12:50 by Mpelembe   [ updated 31 Oct 2011, 12:50 ]
CT scanners developed for the medical profession are now proving just as effective for anthropologists studying centuries-old mummies in museums. The Natural History Museum in Washington DC recently took delivery of a new scanner which anthropologists say will give them a highly-detailed, three-dimensional view of our ancient relatives without having to disturb their remains.

WASHINGTON, DC, UNITED STATES (SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION) - He'd lain in mummified obscurity at the Museum of Natural History for half a century. Apart from his origins in Lower Egypt some two to 2500 years ago, noone knew much about him. Curators were unwilling to open him up for fear of causing irreversible damage. But then CT scanning technology came along, and the body came to life. The scans revealed that the mummified man was about 40 years old when he died and that his brain and major organs had been removed. Rolls of linen had been inserted into the abdominal cavity, indicating methodical embalming of a person of high status.

For centuries, scientists have pursued the mysteries of the natural world. With X-ray computed tomography they now have the ability to produce three-dimensional images, changing the way they examine both old and new specimens in the laboratory.

Today, the presence of CT scanners almost a thousand times faster than those of 20 years ago has revolutionised the way scientists in the anthropology department at The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC look at everything beyond what the naked human eye can see.

From ancient mummies to prehistoric specimens trapped in amber that preserve a diverse array of creatures and organisms, Ph.D. Danish-borne Bruno Frohlich hopes to reveal

new facts about the broad secret universe within these specimens of nature. Wherever possible, he shares his findings with science students and teachers in the winning a new generation of anthropologists.

Frohlich, Statistician and Physical Anthropologist at the Smithsonian's museum, focuses most of his research in the CT Scan lab with one objective in mind, understanding and studying objects to secure a legacy of knowledge for future generations.

"Having the scanner here in our museum, the time is unlimited; we can spend all the time we need to do the work we have to do. And that is what this improvement of quality is, an increased access to data which is going to be significant in the future," he said.

With more than 126 million specimens in its collection, The National Museum of Natural History is one of the world's preeminent research institutions in the field of the natural sciences. In the last two decades, CT scanner technology has enabled researchers and scientists to continue advancing their efforts on the most important artifacts in earth's history, not only to help humanity enrich its understanding of the natural world but also the reasons for its place within it.

A $250,000 gift from Siemens Healthcare USA, the SOMATOM Emotion 6 CT scanner, is now helping researchers to further acquire information about thousands of unique objects stored in the museum. Frolich said the donation from Siemens has been of great importance to the Smithsonian researchers.

"It is unlimited, so maybe not every day but at least a couple of times a week, I will get somebody in here with something saying: 'Can you scan this for us and tell us what is inside it?' or 'We have a problem and maybe it's this, and this, and this...' It is totally new, and it requires a totally new way of processing the data because it is different material. And we do that, and it is absolutely exciting. So, I would say that over the years we have built up some kind of serious expertise in what we can do with the scanner. That is also one of the reasons why the Siemens Healthcare have been always interested in helping us and we've been getting an enormous support from them, the scanners for example. But they are also are getting more interested in how we are actually doing new things. Scanning something like metal coffins, they told me: 'you can't do that' and we did it and we displayed the human body in there, we don't have to open it, we don't have to destroy i," he said.

With the help of the SOMATOM Emotion 6 CT scanner, Bruno Frohlich focuses on understanding one of his most recent studies, "The Lady," a nameless mid-40s woman born in the highlands of Ancon, Peru. Dead for approximately seven centuries and considered one of the best naturally preserved Peruvian mummies of its kind around the world, she is now Frohlich's closest companionship in the lab.

"The Lady," a pseudonym given by Frohlich to the mummy, arrived in the museum's collection almost a century ago, but Frohlich's team has only just begun to investigate her.

Shooting x-rays across the object and collecting thousands of scanned images, the scanning process has allowed scientists to recreate highly accurate and detailed three-dimensional models of this ancient mummy.

The result is possible with a combination of thin slices of scanned data which is then converted with computer animation software.

According to Dr. Frohlich, the accuracy of the new CT scanner application has allowed him to see that the internal organs of "The Lady" are in complete condition.

"It is the second scanning we are doing on The Lady. The first scanning was with the first CT Scanner we got from Siemens and it was a 2-millimetre scanner. This is a 5-millimetres scanner, so we get much better pictures, much better ways we can evaluate what we can see. I scanned it last night and worked here with it until the morning, and what we can see now is that the body's internal organs are complete and there is very little animal damage on it. That would allow us to take samples, for example, for short-term nutrition from the stomach, from the intestines, and the scanner will help us to do that because we can use what we call a biopsy-mode where you actually are putting a needle and you can take out a sample and you do not destroy anything."

While the CT scanner belongs to the National Museum of Natural History and has been used extensively to study the mummy collections, it is also available for use with other Smithsonian collections and other researchers around the world.

Research findings made possible through the use of the new CT scanner were announced at an October 27 presentation to Washington, D.C. public school elementary students at the National Museum of Natural History's public hands-on Forensic Anthropology Lab.

Four high school students from the museum's youth internship program, "Youth Engagement Through Science," visited Dr. Frohlich's lab to observe the CT scanner on the mummy collection and help with the presentation.

Frolich's "Eureka" moment when using the CT Scan for applications other than to create three-dimensional images of human tissue, came when he investigated the anatomy of the world's greatest violins, including those made by Antonio Stradivari between 1677 and 1727.

"We are learning about society and the populations. It help us understand the populations. It helps us to reconstruct the populations. And there is a difference to what you had 20, 30, 40, years ago. Archaeology, anthropology might've been more descriptive than analytical; today we are analytical and there has to be an objective with what we are doing," he said.

According to Dr. Frohlich, this level of research may pioneer helping our own society learn and understand modern humanity's process of decision making.

"It is exciting because I haven't tried to scan anything yet where we can not get something out of it. If you don't put a big block of steel in there of course then we are not learning anything anyway, but the majority of things we put in there, or whatever it is going to be there tomorrow, I don't know, we are going to get something," he said.

At the age of eight, Frohlich, now 65, wanted to be a musician. he became a church organist's assistant but, soon enough, became more interested in how the organ worked. So he took the instrument apart with a screwdriver and a hammer-- a moment that may have triggered his desire to learn about history, cultures, and civilizations, how they were built and why they disappeared.