3-D Brain Maps Guide Doctors Via iPhone

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Far from the state-of-the-art medical facilities available in the United States, many brain surgeons in developing countries look to their smartphones for guidance. The phones have started to fulfill this role, in part, thanks to the thousands of 3-D brain images, produced by Dr. Albert Rhoton at the University of Florida, that are freely available online.

"I've had young surgeons from Africa, Brazil and other countries tell me they're pulling the images into the operating room" and using them during surgery, said Rhoton, head of the Neuro-Microanatomy Lab at the University of Florida's McKnight Brain Institute.

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From its beginnings as a training tool for surgical residents, the doctor's image library has grown into the world's largest collection of 3-D brain images. Physicians across the globe now use the detailed anatomical images to train residents, prepare for surgeries and even guide them when performing surgery. [Gallery: See the Amazing 3-D Images of the Human Brain]

The images are "our small contribution to making what is a delicate, awesome experience for neurosurgery patients more accurate, gentler and safer," Rhoton told LiveScience.

Rhoton has collected images of brain anatomy for as long as he's been teaching surgery — 50 years — and began moving to 3D technology 25 years ago. Only recently, however, did he realize how smartphones and online download venues could expand the reach of his educational tools. Two and a half years ago, Rhoton and his colleagues began working with the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS) to make the brain images and videos available on iTunes University — all at no cost.

Even before the iTunes U venture, Rhoton had shared his brain images with hospitals and universities as a visiting instructor. "I've always given these images to those who wanted to use them," he said, "in the hopes that they would help some patient I'll never know and never meet."

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The guides show the detailed structures of various sections of the brain, with blood vessels and nerves color-coded in bright red and blue. The colors make the details of neural anatomy much clearer than in the normal, grayish brain matter.

Rhoton and the residents he instructs have built up the library over decades, performing careful dissections and transferring the images they obtain to 3-D photography and video. The iTunes U content is engineered to be usable across device platforms, from iPhones to laptops to 3-D television.