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