Image of a person in scrubs standing next to a cadaver draped in a sheet

5 Tips for Your First Study in a Necropsy Lab

Why Use Cadavers?

The study of human anatomy using cadavers dates back to roughly 300 BC, when the Greek physician Herophilus started to use dissection to understand human anatomy. Since then, cadavers have served as a major aid to education and research. For medical students learning anatomy and surgeons perfecting their instrument techniques, cadavers provide physical training materials. What’s more, human cadaver tissue can be used to gain important information about product development and use on human tissue before the device is used in clinical settings.

Human cadaver tissue is useful for medical device development for many reasons:

  • Cadaver labs are often equipped like standard operating rooms, providing a high-fidelity simulated environment for device use.
  • Without needing to worry about radiation exposure for a patient Illustration of two rat skeletonsor live subject, researchers can study the placement of surgical equipment and implants in greater depth and detail.
  • There’s no perfect substitute for human models in the research and design of a device for use on humans. While animal models can be helpful for testing certain products, the anatomical differences between humans and, for example, pigs can impact device research.
  • Animals do not perfectly represent the physiological disease states of humans. For ailments that do not translate well into animal models, researchers need the human model for accurate testing results.

Tips for First-Time Visitors to a Necropsy Lab

For medical professionals and students, dissection and gross anatomy are no big deal, but for engineers and scientists, using deceased human tissue can be a bit unsettling. When visiting a cadaver lab for the first time, these tips may help combat some common reservations:

1. This is not the coroner’s lab

One worry may be what condition the cadaver is in when the study starts. Unless your study specifically wants the cadaver to be brought in without any preparation, cadavers usually undergo a cleaning and preservation process before they are used for study. This study preparation can reduce biohazards and unfortunate scents which may arise during the course of the study. Formaldehyde solution may also be used to help preserve the body for use during longer study periods. In many cases, cadavers used for studies are two or more weeks old at the start of the study, but are stored in a freezer to prevent further necrosis.

2. Smells are a factor

For some people, it is the visual or mental concept of working Illustration of a person in scrubs focusing on pleasant smellswith the cadaver which may induce some nausea—but another major factor is smell. In order to reduce any smell-based nausea that may arise, those in the lab will often place a strong smelling substance under their nose in order to block out the smell of the cadaver. Two common substances that I’ve found helpful are mentholated topical creams and colognes (or perfumes). Some labs may also be equipped with tables that produce a downward draft, which pulls scents underneath the table and out through the venting. With time, you may also become accustomed to the smell of the cadaver because of sensory adaptation.

3. Sights can be jarring

The visual aspect of working with a cadaver may cause a stir Illustration of magnifying glasses focusing on various body parts of five stick figuresfor those without previous exposure. In many cases, if the whole body is not needed to study the device, the portion being studied will be removed from the cadaver for your use. For example, if your study only needs the legs, you may just have a table with an array of legs. Severed limbs are understandably unsettling, but such practices help preserve other areas of the body for other studies. There may also be cases where the areas of the body that aren’t being studied are covered during preparation in order to keep visuals of the cadaver at a minimum.

4. It’s okay to leave the room if you feel sick

Although many people want to work non-stop in order to gain as much time with the cadaver as possible, it’s completely acceptable to take an occasional break. Staff would rather have a nauseous person leave the room than for someone to get sick inside of it. If you feel uneasy about a certain part of the testing procedure, do not try to force yourself to stay in the room.

5. Respect the experience and the people who made it possible

Remember that you are there for the research and development of new technologies which will help others in the future. Remember that these specimens were specifically donated to further the fields of science and medicine. Respect and admiration should be shown for their generosity.

This post was edited by Matthew Cavanagh.