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Stanford Report, April 12, 2000

Stanford contribution to Exploratorium exhibit turns bodies inside out  


If you're one of those people who dreads that first glimpse of yourself in the morning, you can thank Stanford researchers for a mirror that's liable to make you forget all about your out-of-control hair or that troublesome blemish on your face. Instead you may find yourself pondering how your liver nestles cozily with your stomach, or watching as your blood ebbs and flows with each beat of your heart.

But you won't find this technological reflecting marvel in your bathroom any time soon. "Projecting Your Insides Onto Your Outsides" can only be seen as part of a new exhibition at the Exploratorium in San Francisco.

The exhibition, "Revealing Bodies," opened March 18 and runs through September 4. By combining the macabre with the high-tech, it aims to give people an idea of how doctors and lay people have viewed anatomy and physiology through the centuries, from a wax figure created in the 1700s to the cutting-edge technology available today.

"We are coming up with incredible ways to look inside our own bodies," said Sandy Napel, PhD, associate professor of radiology. Napel, co-director of the 3D Imaging Laboratory at Stanford, worked with other Stanford researchers to help design the blood flow portion of the interactive mirror exhibit.

In the exhibit, a specially treated mirror allows viewers to see an image projected onto their reflection, giving the illusion that they are able to see inside their own bodies. Using controls on the side of the mirror, viewers can select whether to survey the placement of their internal organs or the bones that make up their skeleton, or to marvel at the way their heart orchestrates the circulation of their blood flow. The size of the projected image can be adjusted to fit either an adult's or child's frame.

To generate the data necessary to show changes in blood flow throughout the body as the heart beats, Napel, Charles Taylor, PhD, assistant professor of surgery, and Norbert Pelc, PhD, professor of radiology, recruited a volunteer to serve as a prototype for the typical museum visitor. They used magnetic resonance imaging to clearly visualize the subject's beating heart and blood vessels. They then collected two sets of data. The first was a static map of the subject's aorta, from the neck to hip. The other -- much more complex -- focused on the subject's heart, gathering 24-layer "snapshots" of the muscle movement at sixteen points during the cardiac cycle.

Napel used sophisticated computer software to generate a three-dimensional movie of the beating heart at each of the sixteen stages of the cycle, while Taylor computed the speed of the blood flow based on the diameter of the aorta at each time point. The blood flow was then color-coded -- red for fastest and blue for slowest. When the two movies were merged, they presented a dynamic, moving image of how blood ebbs and flows in response to the contraction of the heart muscle.

"We spent probably at least a good solid week or more on it," said Taylor of his lab's effort.

According to Napel, visualizing one's own inner workings can be more than just educational. "You get people to experience themselves and their world differently because of the ability of technology to show them what's going on inside their bodies," he said. Being a part of such an experience can be both entertaining and rewarding.

"It was fun to do something that would contribute to a broad educational experience for people," said Pelc.

Stanford's involvement in the new exhibit didn't end when the exhibit opened for business on March 18, however. On Saturday, April 22, at 11:00 am, Gary Glover, MD, professor of radiology, will conduct a demonstration of Stanford's functional MRI capabilities at the Richard M. Lucas Center for Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy and Imaging on campus. An Exploratorium staff member will ponder simple math problems and view different colors while undergoing a MRI scan in real time. Changing colors on the scan will indicate increased oxygen flow, correlating with areas of neuronal activity that are stimulated by performing the different tasks. The demo will be broadcast live on the Exploratorium's web site (, to be viewed by both techies at home and visitors at the museum.

The Exploratorium drew on a wide variety of sources, both locally and worldwide to round-out the "Revealing Bodies" exhibit and to make it irresistible to both the scientifically inclined as well as to those who revel in the blood-and-guts aspect of the endeavor. The Visible Human Project owes its existence to two actual human cadavers. The cadavers, one male and one female, were frozen immediately after death, encased in gelatin and infused with latex before being sliced vertically into paper-thin sections that were then digitally photographed. Visitors can flip through the sections like the pages of a book.

In order to show changes in medical technology and the changing attitudes and knowledge about our bodies, the exhibit includes anatomic aids from days gone by. The medical Venus is a life-sized wax figure from Italy, formed in the 1700s. In graceful repose, the wall of her abdomen has been peeled back to reveal her internal organs. A skeleton of a tuberculosis victim from the 18th century and a wax representation of the face of an individual suffering from syphilis round out the gruesome yet educational display, which is promising to be a popular attraction.

"We had a great opening weekend," said Mary Anne Hallacy, admissions manager for the Exploratorium. "We're getting a lot of people here because of the exhibition."

"Revealing Bodies" will be at the Exploratorium through September 4. The Exploratorium is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, and until 9 p.m. every Wednesday. After Labor Day the Exploratorium is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Wed. until 9 p.m. Admission is $9.00 for adults, $7.00 for senior citizens and students with ID. People with disabilities and youth from 6 to17 are $5.00, children from 3 to 5 are $2.50. The first Wednesday of every month is free.

Graduate students in Taylor's lab who helped with the computations include Mary Draney, Sean Spicer and David Parker. SR