You are here

High-Tech Approach to Anatomy at the School of Medicine

UNLV's new School of Medicine takes innovative approach to teaching human anatomy with interactive imaging technology.

Campus News  |  Nov 18, 2016  |  By Ed Ort
virtual anatomy table

The UNLV School of Medicine will use virtual anatomy tables to enhance its curriculum. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Photo Services) 

Editor's Note: 

The UNLV School of Medicine recently opened its enrollment process and in less than 10 days received more than 650 applications — more than half from Nevada residents or students who have ties to Nevada. 


For generations, dissecting cadavers has been a seminal moment for medical students. It’s the way that human anatomy was brought to life, so to speak.

“I can still vividly see and smell the cadaver I worked on 46 years ago,” says Barbara Atkinson, founding dean of the UNLV School of Medicine. But she also found it limiting as a teaching tool. “I wanted to see so much more of the body than one small section. I wanted to see how the whole body fit together.”

UNLV School of Medicine students will learn anatomy using virtual anatomy tables, large interactive touchscreens. Primed with a library of clinical images — X-rays, MRIs, CT scans, pathology slides and all the other diagnostic tools at a physicians disposal — the virtual anatomy table can display body images in a wide variety of perspectives. It can show a specific organ and rotate it in three dimensions. It can offer a cross-sectional of the right half of a brain, explore a branch of the circulatory system or zoom-in to a tumor cell. 

And unlike those cadavers, the table is fully interactive. Faculty and students control the image by simply touching or dragging one or more fingers across the screen.  A student can view successive horizontal sections of the body cavity and its internal structures by dragging three fingers down the table. In a similar way, students can virtually slice through an anatomical structure ‒ in essence, dissecting it.  

Supplementing the images are lessons that guide the students through the anatomy, basic anatomical concepts, and descriptions of specific features. So when students display an anatomical structure, they can immediately identify what it is and what it does.

But perhaps most important, says Dr. Ellen Cosgrove, vice dean for academic affairs and education, the virtual anatomy experiences are built around challenging clinical cases, where understanding human anatomy is key to solving the clinical case.

Dr. Jeffrey Fahl demonstrates the UNLV School of Medicine's virtual anatomy table to anthropology graduate students Claira Ralston and Alesha Pettit. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Photo Services)

An Improved Way of Learning Anatomy

Virtual anatomy presents several distinct advantages over the traditional approach to gross anatomy:

Realistic: It prepares students for how they will interact with anatomy as physicians. Cosgrove explains, “Today physicians use so many different imaging procedures to diagnose their patients. Virtual anatomy gives students a sense of anatomy as they will actually experience it once they are practicing physicians.”

Repetition: Students can virtually dissect the body and repeat the process as many times as needed. By comparison, once tissue is removed from a cadaver, it’s gone.

Visibility: Students can view anatomical structures in a many different perspectives and angles including 2D cross-section and 3D rotation, which make body structures easy to display, even the hard-to-find ones in tightly confined areas of a human cadaver.

A Multi-Station Anatomy Experience

Students will receive two hours a week of intensive anatomy experience during the school’s scientific foundation phase. In addition to working with the virtual anatomy tables, students will use anatomic models and skeletons to further their knowledge. They also will observe cadavers professionally dissected by Emilio Puentadura, associate professor in the UNLV physical therapy department.

In short, UNLV School of Medicine students will experience a state-of-the art approach to learning that will prepare them for medical practice with a sophisticated, three-dimensional understanding of the structure of the human body.