European Radiology

, Volume 18, Issue 2, pp 273–282 | Cite as

Virtual autopsy using imaging: bridging radiologic and forensic sciences. A review of the Virtopsy and similar projects

  • Stephan A. Bolliger
  • Michael J. Thali
  • Steffen Ross
  • Ursula Buck
  • Silvio Naether
  • Peter Vock
Forensic Medicine


The transdisciplinary research project Virtopsy is dedicated to implementing modern imaging techniques into forensic medicine and pathology in order to augment current examination techniques or even to offer alternative methods. Our project relies on three pillars: three-dimensional (3D) surface scanning for the documentation of body surfaces, and both multislice computed tomography (MSCT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to visualise the internal body. Three-dimensional surface scanning has delivered remarkable results in the past in the 3D documentation of patterned injuries and of objects of forensic interest as well as whole crime scenes. Imaging of the interior of corpses is performed using MSCT and/or MRI. MRI, in addition, is also well suited to the examination of surviving victims of assault, especially choking, and helps visualise internal injuries not seen at external examination of the victim. Apart from the accuracy and three-dimensionality that conventional documentations lack, these techniques allow for the re-examination of the corpse and the crime scene even decades later, after burial of the corpse and liberation of the crime scene. We believe that this virtual, non-invasive or minimally invasive approach will improve forensic medicine in the near future.


Forensic imaging Virtopsy Computed tomography Magnetic resonance imaging Surface scanning 


  1. 1.
    Lundberg GD (1998) Low-tech autopsies in the era of high-tech medicine: continued value for quality assurance and patient safety. JAMA 280:1273–1274PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Wullenweber R, Schneider V, Grumme T (1977) [A computer-tomographical examination of cranial bullet wounds]. Z Rechtsmed 80:227–246PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Brogdon BG (1998) Forensic radiology, 1st edn. CRC press, Boca RatonGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    Vogel H (1997) Gewalt im Röntgenbild: Befunde bei Krieg, Folter und Verbrechen. Echomed 41:13–42Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Levy AD, Abbott RM, Mallak CT, Getz JM, Harcke HT, Champion HR, Pearse LA (2006) Virtual autopsy: preliminary experience in high-velocity gunshot wound victims. Radiology 240:522–528PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 6.
    Poulsen K, Simonsen J (2006) Computed tomography in connection with medico-legal autopsies. Forensic Sci Int PMID 16891070Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Ljung P, Winskog C, Persson A, Lundstrom C, Ynnerman A (2006) Full body virtual autopsies using a state-of-the-art volume rendering pipeline. Trans Vis Comput Graph 12:869–876CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    The Japan Society of Autopsy Imaging home page. Available at: Accessed February 2007
  9. 9.
    Dedouit F, Telmon N, Costagliola R, Otal P, Joffre F, Rouge D (2007) Virtual anthropology and forensic identification: report of one case. Forensic Sci Int 52:960–964CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 10.
    Thali MJ, Braun M, Markwalder TH, Brueschwiler W, Zollinger U, Malik NJ, Yen K, Dirnhofer R (2003) Bite mark documentation and analysis: the forensic 3D/CAD supported photogrammetry approach. Forensic Sci Int 135:115–121PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 11.
    Thali MJ, Braun M, Wirth J, Vock P, Dirnhofer R (2003) 3D surface and body documentation in forensic medicine: 3-D/CAD photogrammetry merged with 3D radiological scanning. J Forensic Sci 48:1356–1365PubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. 12.
    Thali MJ, Braun M, Buck U, Aghayev E, Jackowski C, Vock P, Sonnenschein M, Dirnhofer R (2005) VIRTOPSY: scientific documentation, reconstruction and animation in forensics: individual and real 3D data based geometric approach including optical body/object surface and radiological CT/MRI scanning. J Forensic Sci 50:428–442PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 13.
    Buck U, Naether S, Braun M, Bolliger S, Friederich H, Jackowski C, Aghayev E, Christe A, Vock P, Dirnhofer R, Thali MJ (2007) Application of 3D documentation and geometrical reconstruction methods in traffic accident analysis: with high resolution surface scanning, radiological MSCT/MRI scanning and real data based animation. Forensic Sci Int 170:20–28PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 14.
    Thali MJ, Yen K, Schweitzer W, Vock P, Boesch C, Ozdoba C, Schroth G, Ith M, Sonnenschein M, Doernhofer T, Scheurer E, Plattner T, Dirnhofer R (2003) Virtopsy, a new imaging horizon in forensic pathology: virtual autopsy by postmortem multisclice computed tomography (MSCT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)—a feasibility study. J Forensic Sci 48:386–403PubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. 15.
    Dirnhofer R, Jackowski C, Vock P, Potter K, Thali MJ (2006) VIRTOPSY: minimally invasive, imaging-guided virtual autopsy. Radiographics 26:1305–1333PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 16.
    Thali MJ, Yen K, Vock P, Ozdoba C, Kneubuehl B, Sonnenschein M, Dirnhofer R (2003) Image-guided virtual autopsy findings of gunshot victims performed with Multi-Slice Computed Tomography (MSCT) and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), and subsequent correlation between radiology and autopsy findings. Forensic Sci Int 138:8–16PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 17.
    Thali MJ, Schwab CM, Tairi K, Dirnhofer R, Vock P (2002) Forensic radiology with cross-section modalities: spiral CT evaluation of a knife wound to the aorta. J Forensic Sci 47:1041–1045PubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. 18.
    Thali MJ, Markwalder T, Jackowski C, Sonnenschein M, Dirnhofer R (2006) Dental CT imaging as a screening tool for dental profiling: advantages and limitations. J Forensic Sci 51:113–119PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 19.
    Jackowski C, Thali MJ, Sonnenschein M, Aghayev E, Yen K, Dirnhofer R, Vock P (2004) Visualization and quantification of air embolism structure by processing postmortem MSCT data. J Forensic Sci 49:1339–1342PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 20.
    Yen K, Vock P, Tiefenthaler B, Ranner G, Scheurer E, Thali MJ, Zwygart K, Sonnenschein M, Wiltgen M, Dirnhofer R (2004) Virtopsy: forensic traumatology of the subcutaneous fatty tissue: multislice computed tomography (MSCT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) as diagnostic tools. J Forensic Sci 49:799–806PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 21.
    Bisset R (1998) Magnetic resonance imaging may be alternative to necropsy. BMJ 317:1450PubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. 22.
    Bisset R, Thomas NB, Turnbull IW, Lee S (2002) Postmortem examinations using magnetic resonance imaging: four year review of a working service. BMJ 324:1423–1424PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 23.
    Brookes JA, Hall-Craggs MA, Sams VR, Lees VR (1996) Non-invasive perinatal necropsy by magnetic resonance imagining. Lancet 348:1139–1141PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 24.
    Hart BL, Dudley MH, Zumwalt RE (1996) Postmortem cranial MRI and autopsy correlation in suspected child abuse. Am J Forensic Med Pathol 17:217–224PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 25.
    Woodward PJ, Sohaey R, Harris DP, Jackson GM, Klatt EC, Alexander AL, Kennedy A (1997) Postmortem fetal MR imaging: comparison with findings at autopsy. AJR Am J Roentgenol 168:41–46PubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. 26.
    Ros PR, Li KC, Vo P, Baer H, Staab EV (1990) Preautopsy magnetic resonance imaging: initial experience. Magn Reson Imaging 8:303–308PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 27.
    Patriquin L, Kassarjian A, Barish M, Casserley L, O’Brien M, Andry C, Eustace S (2001) Post-mortem whole-body magnetic resonance imaging as an adjunct to autopsy: preliminary clinical experience. J Magn Reson Imaging 13:277–287PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. 28.
    Jackowski C, Dirnhofer S, Thali MJ, Aghayev E, Dirnhofer R, Sonnenschein M (2005) Postmortem diagnostics using MSCT and MRI of a lethal streptococcus group A infection at infancy: a case report. Forensi Sci Int 151:157–163CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 29.
    Jackowski C, Schweitzer W, Thali MJ, Yen K, Aghayev E, Sonnenschein M, Vock P, Dirnhofer R (2005) Virtopsy: Postmortem imaging of the human heart in situ using MSCT and MRI. Forensic Sci Int 149:11–23PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. 30.
    Aghayev E, Sonnenschein M, Jackowski C, Thali MJ, Buck U, Yen K, Bolliger S, Dirnhofer R, Vock P (2006) Post-mortem radiology of fatal hemorrhage in postmortem radiology: measurements of cross-sectional areas of major blood vessels and volumes of aorta and spleen by MSCT and volumes of heart chambers by MRI. AJR Am J Roentgenol 187:209–215PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. 31.
    Yen K, Thali M, Aghayev E, Jackowski C, Schweitzer W, Boesch C, Vock P, Dirnhofer R, Sonnenschein M (2005) Strangulation signs: initial correlation of MRI, MSCT and forensic neck findings. J Magn Reson Imaging 22:501–510PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 32.
    Jackowski C, Sonnenschein M, Thali MJ, Aghayev E, von Allmen G, Yen K, Dirnhofer R, Vock P (2005) Virtopsy: Postmortem minimally invasive angiography using cross section techniques-Implementation and preliminary results. J Forensic Sci 50:1157–1186CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. 33.
    Jackowski C, Bolliger S, Aghayev E, Christe A, Kilchoer T, Aebi B, Perinat T, Dirnhofer R, Thali MJ (2006) Reduction of postmortem angiography-induced tiussue edema by using polyethylene glycol as a contrast-agent dissolver. J Forensic Sci 51:1134–1137PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. 34.
    Grabherr S, Djonov V, Friess A, Thali MJ, Ranner G, Vock P, Dirnhofer R (2006) Postmortem angiography after vascular perfusion with diesel oil and a lipophilic contrast agent. AJR Am J Roentgenol 187:515–523CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. 35.
    Johnson GA, Benveniste H, Black RD, Hedlund LW, Maronpot RR, Smith BR (1993) Histology by magnetic resonance microscopy. Mag Reson Q 9:1–30Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Thali MJ, Dirnhofer R, Becker R, Oliver W, Potter K (2004) Is ‘virtual histology’ the next step after ‘virtual autopsy’? Magnetic resonance microscopy in forensic medicine. Magn Reson Imaging 22:1131–1138PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. 37.
    Engelke K, Karolczak M, Lutz A, Seibert U, Schaller S, Kalender W (1999) [Micro CT: technology and application for assessing bone structure]. Radiologe 39:203–212PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. 38.
    Thali MJ, Taubenreuther U, Karolczak M, Braun M, Brueschwiler W, Kalender WA, Dirnhofer R (2003) Forensic microradiology: micro-computed tomography (Micro-CT) and analysis of patterned injuries inside of bone. J Forensic Sci 48:1336–1342PubMedGoogle Scholar
  39. 39.
    Aghayev E, Thali MJ, Sonnenschein M, Jackowski C, Dirnhofer R, Vock P (2006) Post-mortem tissue sampling using computed tomography guidance. Forensic Sci Int 166:199–203PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. 40.
    Scheurer E, Ith M, Dietrich D, Kreis R, Husler J, Dirnhofer R, Boesch C (2005) Statistical evaluation of time-dependent metabolite concentrations: estimation of post-mortem intervals based on in situ 1H-MRS of the brain. NMR Biomed 18:163–172PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. 41.
    Rutty GN (2007) Are autopsies necessary? The role of computed tomography as a possible alternative to invasive autopsies. Rechtsmedizin 17:21–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. 42.
    Roberts IS, Benbow EW, Bisset R, Jenkins JP, Lee SH, Reid H, Jackson A (2003) Accuracy of magnetic resonance imaging in determining cause of sudden death in adults: comparison with conventional autopsy. Histopathology 42:424–430PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Stephan A. Bolliger
    • 1
  • Michael J. Thali
    • 1
  • Steffen Ross
    • 1
  • Ursula Buck
    • 1
  • Silvio Naether
    • 1
  • Peter Vock
    • 2
  1. 1.Centre for Forensic Imaging and Virtopsy, Institute of Forensic MedicineUniversity of BernBernSwitzerland
  2. 2.Department for Diagnostic Radiology, InselspitalUniversity of BernBernSwitzerland

Personalised recommendations