Forensic Science, Medicine and Pathology

, Volume 14, Issue 1, pp 85–94 | Cite as

Rapid and reliable detection of previous freezing of cerebral tissue by computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging

  • Stephan A. Bolliger
  • Doris Tomasin
  • Jakob Heimer
  • Henning Richter
  • Michael J. Thali
  • Dominic Gascho
Original Article


Due to slowing or even inhibition of postmortem processes, freezing may make an estimation of the time-since-death very difficult. This is also true in previously frozen and subsequently thawed bodies. Knowledge of prior freezing is important, as it may lead to a different assessment of the time since death. Twelve pig heads were frozen at −20 °C, and 6 heads were either kept at room temperature (approximately 20 °C) or in a cooling cell (approximately 5 °C). The frozen brains and cadavers were thawed at either room temperature or in a cooling cell. All specimens underwent repeated CT and MRI scanning until the brains were sampled for histological examination. Two radiologists assessed the images and two pathologists reviewed the histological slides with regard to thawing artifacts and putrefaction. All raters were blinded regarding whether the samples had been frozen, for how long and how they had been thawed. Imaging revealed distinct, tiny bubble-like artifacts only in previously frozen specimens. Histology also revealed artifacts only seen in such cases, namely very distinct, columnar bubbles in the cerebral cortex. All raters successfully identified previously unfrozen brains (100% specificity) and nearly all previously frozen brains. Our results suggest that initial post-mortem imaging can be of enormous importance in everyday forensic practice by identifying possible cases of previous freezing – cases that would therefore warrant closer scrutiny and thus raise caution regarding the time of death.


Thawing artifacts Frozen brain Forensic MR CT Time-since-death estimation 



The authors would like to thank the late Emma Louise Kessler, MD, whose legacy supported this study financially. We are grateful to the Zurich Veterinary Hospital and the Zurich abattoir for of the pig heads. We are also indebted to Sandra Baumann, Markus Enders and Valeria Hofer from the Institute of Forensic Medicine, University of Zurich, for extraction of the pig brains.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest


Ethical approval

None needed.

Informed consent

None needed.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Stephan A. Bolliger
    • 1
  • Doris Tomasin
    • 1
  • Jakob Heimer
    • 1
  • Henning Richter
    • 2
  • Michael J. Thali
    • 1
  • Dominic Gascho
    • 1
  1. 1.Zurich Institute of Forensic Medicine, Department of Forensic Medicine and ImagingUniversity of ZurichZurichSwitzerland
  2. 2.Vetsuisse Faculty, Diagnostic Imaging Research Unit (DIRU), Clinic for Diagnostic Imaging, Department of Clinical Diagnostics and ServicesUniversity of ZurichZurichSwitzerland

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