Looking into subdural empyema, which is a meningeal infection you don’t want, I stumbled upon a study from the roaring 1970s – the glorious Nixon-Ford-Carter years – using computerized axial tomography (hence, CAT scan) to visualize lesions within the skull (Claveria et al. 1976). Nowadays people refer to various similar scanning techniques simply as “CT” (for computed tomography, though this is not exactly the same as magnetic resonance imaging, MRI).
It’s pretty amazing how medical imaging has advanced in the 35 years since this study. For example, to the right is a CAT scan from Claveria et al. (1976, Fig. 4). These are transverse images (“slices”) through the brain case, the top of the images corresponding to the front of the face. You can discern the low-density (darker) brain from the higher density (lighter) bone – the sphenoid lesser wings and dorsum sellae, and petrous pyramids of the temporal bones are especially prominent in the top left image. In the bottom two images you can see a large, round abscess in the middle cranial fossa. Whoa.
What makes this medical imaging technique so great is that it allows a view inside of things without having to dissect into them. Of course, the downside is that it relies on radiation, so ethically you can’t be so cavalier as to CT scan just any living thing. If I’d been alive in 1976, CAT scanning would’ve blown my mind. Still, the image quality isn’t super great here, there’s not good resolution between materials of different densities, hence the grainy images.
But since then, some really smart people have been hard at work to come up with new ways to get better resolution from computerized tomography scans, and the results are pretty amazing. To the left is a slice from a synchrotron CT scan of the MH1 Australopithecus sediba skull (Carlson et al. 2011, Supporting on line material, Fig. S10). You’re basically seeing the fossil face-to-face … if someone had cut of the first few centimeters of the fossil’s face. Just like the movie Face Off.
Quite a difference from the image above. Here, we can distinguish fossilized bone from the rocky matrix filling in the orbit, brain case and sinuses. Synchrotron even distinguishes molar tooth enamel from the underlying dentin (see the square). The post-mortem distortion to the (camera right) orbit is clear. It also looks as though the hard palate is thick and filled with trabecular bone, as is characteristic of robust Australopithecus (McCollum 1999). Interesting…
Even more remarkable, the actual histological structure of bone can be imaged with synchrotron imaging. Mature cortical bone is comprised of these small osteons (or Haversian systems), that house bone cells and transmit blood vessels to help keep bone alive and healthy. Osteons are very tiny, submillimetric. To the right is a 3D reconstruction of an osteon and blood vessels, from synchrotron images (Cooper et al. 2011). The scale bar in the bottom right is 250 micrometers. MICROmeters! Note the scan can distinguish the Haversian canal (red part in B-C) from vessels (white part in B). Insane!
Not only has image quality improved over the past few decades, but CT scanning is being applied outside the field of medicine for which it was developed; it’s becoming quite popular in anthropology. What I’d like to do, personally, with such imaging is see if it can be used to study bone morphogenesis – if it can be used to distinguish bone deposition vs. resorption, and to see how these growth fields are distributed across a bone during ontogeny. This could allow the study the proximate, cellular causes of skeletal form, how this form arises through growth and development. If it could be applied to fossils, then we could potentially even see how these growth fields are altered over the course of evolution: how form evolves.
Carlson KJ, Stout D, Jashashvili T, de Ruiter DJ, Tafforeau P, Carlson K, & Berger LR (2011). The endocast of MH1, Australopithecus sediba. Science (New York, N.Y.), 333 (6048), 1402-7 PMID: 21903804
Claveria, L., Boulay, G., & Moseley, I. (1976). Intracranial infections: Investigation by computerized axial tomography Neuroradiology, 12 (2), 59-71 DOI: 10.1007/BF00333121
Cooper, D., Erickson, B., Peele, A., Hannah, K., Thomas, C., & Clement, J. (2011). Visualization of 3D osteon morphology by synchrotron radiation micro-CT Journal of Anatomy, 219 (4), 481-489 DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7580.2011.01398.x
McCollum, M. (1999). The Robust Australopithecine Face: A Morphogenetic Perspective Science, 284 (5412), 301-305 DOI: 10.1126/science.284.5412.301