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Alexander Tsiaras: Conception to birth -- visualized

December 2, 2010

Image-maker Alexander Tsiaras shares a powerful medical visualization, showing human development from conception to birth and beyond. (Some graphic images.)

Alexander Tsiaras - Medical image maker
Using art and technology, Alexander Tsiaras visualizes the unseen human body. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I was offered a position as associate professor of medicine
00:15
and chief of scientific visualization
00:18
at Yale University
00:21
in the department of medicine.
00:23
And my job was to write many of the algorithms and code
00:25
for NASA to do virtual surgery
00:28
in preparation for the astronauts going into deep spaceflight,
00:30
so they could be kept in robotic pods.
00:33
One of the fascinating things about what we were actually working on
00:35
is that we were seeing, using new kinds of scanning technologies,
00:37
things that had just never been seen before --
00:40
I mean, not only in disease management,
00:42
but also things that allowed us to see things about the body
00:44
that just made you marvel.
00:48
I remember one of the first times we were looking at collagen.
00:51
And your entire body, everything --
00:54
your hair, skin, bone, nails --
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everything is made of collagen.
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And it's a kind of rope-like structure
01:00
that twirls and swirls like this.
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And the only place that collagen changes its structure
01:04
is in the cornea of your eye.
01:08
In your eye,
01:10
it becomes a grid formation,
01:12
and therefore, it becomes transparent, as opposed to opaque.
01:14
So perfectly organized a structure,
01:17
it was hard not to attribute divinity to it.
01:20
Because we kept on seeing this over and over and over again
01:22
in different parts of the body.
01:25
One of the opportunities I had
01:27
was one person was working on a really interesting
01:30
micromagnetic resonance imaging machine with the NIH.
01:32
And what we were going to do
01:35
was scan a new project
01:37
on the development of the fetus from conception to birth
01:39
using these kinds of new technologies.
01:41
So I wrote the algorithms in code,
01:43
and he built the hardware -- Paul Lauterbur --
01:45
then went onto win the Nobel Prize for inventing the MRI.
01:48
I got the data.
01:51
And I'm going to show you a sample of the piece,
01:53
"From Conception to Birth."
01:55
(Music)
01:57
Video text: "From Conception to Birth"
02:03
Oocyte
02:09
Sperm
02:14
Egg Inseminated
02:20
24 Hours: Baby's first division
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The fertilized ovum divides a few hours after fusion ...
02:33
And divides anew every 12 to 15 hours.
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Early Embryo
02:41
Yolk sack still feeding Baby.
02:44
25 Days: Heart chamber developing
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32 Days: Arms & hands are developing
02:56
36 Days: Beginning of the primitive vertabrae
03:05
These weeks are the period of the most rapid development of the fetus.
03:11
If the fetus continues to grow at this speed for the entire nine months,
03:24
it would be 1.5 tons at birth.
03:27
45 Days
03:31
Embryo's heart is beating twice as fast as the mother's.
03:39
51 Days
03:46
52 Days: Developing retina, nose and fingers
03:49
The fetus' continual movement in the womb
04:03
is necessary for muscular and skeletal growth.
04:08
12 Weeks: Indifferent penis --
04:25
girl or boy yet to be determined
04:27
8 Months
04:31
Delivery: the expulsion stage
05:01
The moment of birth
05:43
(Applause)
05:52
Alexander Tsiaras: Thank you.
05:56
But as you can see,
05:58
when you actually start working on this data,
06:00
it's pretty spectacular.
06:02
And as we kept on scanning more and more,
06:04
working on this project,
06:06
looking at these two simple cells
06:08
that have this kind of unbelievable machinery
06:10
that will become the magic of you.
06:13
And as we kept on working on this data,
06:15
looking at small clusters of the body,
06:17
these little pieces of tissue
06:20
that were a trophoblast coming off of a blastocyst,
06:23
all of a sudden burrowing itself into the side of the uterus,
06:25
saying, "I'm here to stay."
06:28
All of a sudden having conversation and communications
06:30
with the estrogens, the progesterones,
06:32
saying, "I'm here to stay, plant me,"
06:34
building this incredible trilinear fetus
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that becomes, within 44 days,
06:39
something that you can recognize,
06:41
and then at nine weeks
06:43
is really kind of a little human being.
06:45
The marvel of this information:
06:47
How do we actually have this biological mechanism
06:49
inside our body
06:51
to actually see this information?
06:53
I'm going to show you something pretty unique.
06:55
Here's a human heart at 25 [weeks].
06:57
It's just basically two strands.
06:59
And like this magnificent origami,
07:01
cells are developing
07:03
at one million cells per second at four weeks,
07:05
as it's just folding on itself.
07:08
Within five weeks, you can start to see the early atrium and the early ventricles.
07:10
Six weeks, these folds are now beginning
07:13
with the papilla on the inside of the heart
07:15
actually being able to pull down
07:17
each one of those valves in your heart
07:19
until you get a mature heart --
07:21
and then basically the development of the entire human body.
07:24
The magic of the mechanisms
07:26
inside each genetic structure
07:28
saying exactly where that nerve cell should go --
07:31
the complexity of these mathematical models
07:34
of how these things are indeed done
07:36
are beyond human comprehension.
07:38
Even though I am a mathematician,
07:40
I look at this with marvel
07:42
of how do these instruction sets
07:44
not make these mistakes
07:47
as they build what is us?
07:49
It's a mystery, it's magic, it's divinity.
07:51
Then you start to take a look at adult life.
07:53
Take a look at this little tuft of capillaries.
07:56
It's just a tiny sub-substructure, microscopic.
07:58
But basically by the time you're nine months and you're given birth,
08:01
you have almost 60,000 miles of vessels
08:05
inside your body.
08:08
I mean, and only one mile is visible.
08:10
59,999 miles
08:12
that are basically bringing nutrients and taking waste away.
08:15
The complexity of building that within a single system
08:18
is, again, beyond any comprehension
08:20
or any existing mathematics today.
08:22
And that instruction set,
08:24
from the brain to every other part of the body --
08:26
look at the complexity of the folding.
08:28
Where does this intelligence
08:30
of knowing that a fold can actually hold more information,
08:32
so as you actually watch the baby's brain grow --
08:34
and this is one of the things that we're doing right now.
08:37
We're actually doing the launch of two new studies
08:39
of actually scanning babies' brains from the moment they're born.
08:41
Every six months until they're six years old --
08:44
we're going to be doing actually to about 250 children --
08:46
watching exactly how the gyri and the sulci of the brains fold
08:49
to see how this magnificent development
08:52
actually turns into memories and the marvel that is us.
08:54
And it's not just our own existence,
08:57
but how does the woman's body understand
08:59
to have genetic structure that not only builds her own,
09:01
but then has the understanding
09:04
that allows her to become
09:06
a walking immunological, cardiovascular system
09:08
that basically is a mobile system
09:11
that can actually nurture, treat this child with a kind of marvel
09:13
that is beyond, again, our comprehension --
09:17
the magic that is existence, that is us?
09:20
Thank you.
09:23
(Applause)
09:25

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Alexander Tsiaras - Medical image maker
Using art and technology, Alexander Tsiaras visualizes the unseen human body.

Why you should listen

Alexander Tsiaras is an artist and technologist whose work explores the unseen human body, developing scientific visualization software to enable him to "paint" the human anatomy using volume data. He's the author of Body Voyage and co-author of Information Architects. Most recently, he is the author of From Conception to Birth: A Life Unfolds and The Architecture and Design of Man and Woman: The Marvel of the Human Body, Revealed.

His latest project is The Visual MD, an online compendium of health visualizations.

The original video is available on TED.com
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