RESEARCHERS WORKING ON REAL X-RAY VISION

If you're old enough, you'll remember the laughable ads in comic books for eyeglasses that promised to give you X-ray vision, just like Superman. Now, scientists at Brown University, in Providence, R.I., are developing a technology that could really deliver on that far-fetched vow. According to a recent statement to the media, a multi-disciplinary team from the college is hard at work on creating a system that would, for example, enable doctors to study damaged bones and tissue in motion to plan the most effective surgical approach to a patient's treatment.

Photo: STEPHEN GATESY

BONES IN MOTION: The CTX system would allow scientists to study the inner workings of living animals without harming them.

The researchers from Brown are calling the new technology CTX, as it combines techniques from computerized tomography (CT) and X-ray fluoroscopy. At present, short of exploratory surgery, biomedical scientists have mainly a single advanced approach to studying hidden anatomical features in action. This involves using a procedure known as cinefluoroscopy, in which a fluoroscope and camera record two-dimensional moving images of the interiors of subjects (and which has been exaggerated itself in sci-fi entertainment such as the movie "Total Recall"). CTX, on the other hand, offers the hope of much more robust imaging in three dimensions, with software capable of rendering precise details from multiple perspectives. The Brown scientists say CTX should deliver images that will be able to track 3D skeletal movements with 0.1 millimeter accuracy, offering the equivalent of 1000 CT images per second.

Image: DAVID BAIER

INNERVISION: Researchers at Brown University currently create only single-beam X-ray visualizations, aligned by hand.

"This will be like having X-ray vision," said team leader Elizabeth Brainerd, a professor of medical science in Brown's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. "You'll be able to see through skin and muscle and watch a skeleton move in 3-D. Imagine animated X-ray movies of flying bats or flexing knees. It's very cool technology that is also very important from a biomedical standpoint."

The CTX team—which consists also of bioengineer Joseph Crisco, computer scientist David Laidlaw, orthopedic experts Braden Fleming and Douglas Moore, and biologists Stephen Gatesy, Thomas Roberts and Sharon Swartz—said their invention could find applications across a range of fields, such as:

  • testing theories of biomechanics such as muscle-tendon interactions;

  • studying the evolution of animals and how they move;

  • planning orthopedic surgeries and comparing efficacies;

  • and driving innovation in computer graphics and scientific visualization.

Currently, the university has funding to build a new CTX facility on campus for the computers and equipment needed to advance the team's research. Faculty and students are already at work, meanwhile, on pilot projects to visualize pigs walking, birds flying, and frogs jumping, according to the announcement.

Now, that's research that would make Superman proud.

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