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Brown University researchers are creating a technology that will allow doctors and scientists to do the seemingly impossible: See inside living humans and animals and watch their bones move in 3-D as they run, fly, jump, swim and slither. This high-resolution, high-speed imaging system will contribute to better treatments for knee, shoulder, wrist, and back injuries and help scientists understand the evolution of complex movements, from the flight of birds to the leap of frogs.

“This will be like having X-ray vision – you’ll be able to see through skin and muscle and watch a skeleton move in 3-D,” said Elizabeth Brainerd, the Brown University biology professor overseeing development of the new system. “Imagine animated X-ray movies of flying bats or flexing knees. It’s very cool technology that is also very important from a biomedical standpoint.”

This multidisciplinary project brings together a diverse team of Brown researchers. They include bioengineer Joseph Crisco, computer scientist David Laidlaw, orthopedic experts Braden Fleming and Douglas Moore, and biologists Stephen Gatesy, Thomas Roberts and Sharon Swartz. The computer science portion of the project, led by David Laidlaw, will be devoted to creating tools for interpreting 3D x-ray images together with 2D x-ray movies and analyzing the complex motions of bones as animals locomote.

The system will be designed and built with a $1.8-million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation, one of the nation’s largest philanthropic organizations and a major supporter of pioneering discoveries in science, engineering, and medical research. The grant will pay for the X-ray machines, treadmills, and other equipment. But creating the imaging technology will be a mainly computational challenge, so funding will also support substantial software development.