Medical imaging’s impact on history—yet another reason researchers need funding

Modern medical imaging technology has made for quicker diagnoses, less invasive surgeries and improved public health—and, as everyone within the industry knows, these advances are just the beginning. Cutting-edge modalities and techniques promise to let clinicians use virtual reality to find colorectal polyps or measure the shape of a prostate to determine whether or not there’s cancer.

In the face of uncertainty surrounding the Trump administration’s proclivity for research funding, it’s worth remembering these modalities have a multitude of fascinating uses beyond medicine.

MRI and diffusion tensor imaging, for example, were used to examine post-mortem brain specimens of the extinct Tasmanian tiger. Its natural behavior had never been documented, so scientists reconstructed tracts of white matter in its brain and compared it to the Tasmanian devil, a living genetic cousin.

The study of the past is a natural fit for imaging, as it allows scientists to peel back layers of tissue or fabric without damaging a specimen. Archeologists at the British Museum used CT to build 3D images of Egyptian mummies, allowing visitors to feel closer to the ancient Nile River Valley than ever before.

“We’ve learned a huge amount within a few months about mummies, some of which have been in the museums for over 100 years,” museum curator John Taylor said. “We can see their faces, the objects inside and work out their age at death and the illnesses they suffered from.”

CT has been used in archeology since the 1970s, but today’s scanners are much more powerful. They are so powerful, in fact, that researchers were able to 3D print a mummy’s jawbone and an amulet buried alongside it.

These non-standard uses of imaging technology underscore the need for well-funded, public research organizations such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH). President Trump has asked current NIH chief Francis Collins to stay on, but a funding strategy for the next four years has been difficult to parse out. Collins suffered through years of cuts before President Obama gave the NIH a shot in the arm in 2016, so medical professionals need to make their voices heard.

Medical research can benefit more than just medicine. If you look a bit further, you might find that your favorite imaging technology is used to examine the contents of a burial urn or determine the last meal of a body mummified in a peat bog. Pretty cool, right?