With the energy of a symphony conductor, assistant professor Dr. Joshua Polanski moves his pointer between the exposed transverse cervical nerve, occipital triangle, and subclavian artery as "Specimen Nine" stares back at the assembled first-year dental students.
The students refer to textbooks and tablets, matching the printed and electronic diagrams to the actual anatomy. A question then prompts Polanski to lift Nine from the desk into the light and show the location of the vagus nerve. The students nod in affirmation and make notes as Nine’s gaze takes in the far side of the room.
Nine is one of 60 plastinated — that is, specially preserved — human specimens recently acquired by the School of Dental Medicine for its head and neck anatomy and neuroscience course. The specimens clearly present the bones, muscles, nerves, and vasculature of the head and neck.
“This course fosters an understanding of head and neck anatomy and how it relates to and affects the oral cavity,” said Polanski. “It’s very important that students see the variation that exists in the head and neck, so that they can understand that abnormal is not always pathological. I tell them, ‘If something goes wrong, you can’t blame the patient for not looking like the textbook.’”
UNLV School of Dental Medicine is one of a handful of dental schools in the country that uses plastinated specimens in its anatomy courses. The technique preserves organic matter indefinitely by replacing water and lipids with a curable plastic. The process renders human tissue dry, non-toxic, and odorless while retaining most of the original properties of the specimen, including color and precise weight.
The school currently has 38 heads displaying multiple cross-sections, two complete body specimens, four spines (two connected to brains), six hearts, and two forearms.
"Cadaver dissection is superior for certain clinical programs, but the plastinated specimens make for a time-saver in dental head and neck anatomy,” said assistant professor Dr. Jessica Immonen. “These specimens will last for decades."
After the specimens arrived earlier this summer, Polanski did wonder about the reaction her first class would have. Like cadavers, these teaching aids were once living people.
“There was some initial hesitation among some of the first-year students. Most of it was because the plastinates were unexpected. They hadn’t arrived when the students interviewed, so we didn’t bring them up. They got over their reluctance pretty quickly, especially once they saw the jealousy among the other cohorts and heard those students talk about how helpful they felt the plastinates would have been.”
The specimens have proven to give students crucial insights that aren't readily available from less hands-on materials.
“Real human specimens are so much more effective for learning anatomy and human-to-human variation than atlases, and the plastinated specimens remove the two negative aspects of cadavers: their fragile nature and unpleasant smell," said Bingham Clawson, Class of 2024. "The plastinated specimens maintain fresh colors that are often lost as bodies age over time even with preservation procedures. They make identifying and distinguishing between the ever confusing structures of nerves, arteries, and veins so much easier.”