The future of medical cadavers

Where do medical students get cadavers and is it ethical? For many generations medical students have been performing dissections on cadavers, which are the bodies of deceased people who have generously donated their bodies for medical research after their deaths.

Anyone who wants to donate their bodies after death need to sign an extensive consent form in the presence of witnesses and the lowest age you can sign the form is 17, which means I’m still too young to make a decision like this. Its definitely seen as a big deal and a lot of respect is owed to people who agree to forgo traditional rituals in favour of helping advance medical science.

Cadavers are firstly preserved in in refrigeration units, in a similar way to transplanted organs that will be used again in another host body. But cadavers also need to be preserved chemically, typically in formaldehyde. This firms up body tissue and kills bacteria in the organ or corpse delaying decomposition process.

But what do medical students learn from cadavers and why can’t they use synthetic alternatives instead? The fact is that cadavers are the most accurate when it comes to showing the 3D anatomy of the human body.

Cadavers can be dissected in layers so that you can see the layers of skin and fat as well as the connective membranes between muscles.

Surgical students gain an understanding of texture and thickness of different tissues before they see the living version during surgery on a real life patient. It’s better to learn and make mistakes when a subject is dead and cannot suffer from your incompetence.

Cadavers have also been used for art, although this remains highly controversial. Body Worlds is a the name for numerous exhibitions and public demonstrations created by German anatomist Dr Gunther Von Hagens so that his scientific research on the human anatomy could be accessible to the public in a rather unconventional way. He was famous for inventing the plastination technique in 1977 while working at Heidelberg university.

Plastination replaces the water and fat in the body with certain plastics making it hard. The astonishing thing is that is that the corpse doesn’t ever smell or decay as if frozen in time.

Many cultures in ancient times attempted to endow corpses with immortal life – the Ancient Egyptians believed the physical body was still needed as a dwelling for the soul after death – and would have given anything to know Dr Gunther’s research secrets.

The purpose of Body Worlds is to educate the public, even if it does generate awe and a little disgust in the beholder. I believe it to be an ethical practice as all subjects were volunteers who also had consent in writing for their bodies to be displayed in this way. Plastination may prove a very useful part of medical education in future as the cadavers will last for hundreds of years and can be continually analysed and studied for generations to come.

Imogen Lord
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