Incredible details of a 2,500-year-old mummy’s hand are seen for the first time

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Ancient details of a mummy’s hand, including blood vessels under the fingernails, have been revealed for the first time with a pioneering CT scan technique.  

Scientists were able to do the most detailed scan ever seen on the 2,500-year-old hand which belonged to a man who was alive in ancient Egypt in 400BC.

The resolution of the final images were between six to nine micrometers, which is slightly more than the width of a human red blood cell.

This incredible high-resolution imaging meant they were even able to see the remains of blood vessels, nerves as well as different layers of skin. 

Scientists were able to do the most detailed scan ever seen of a hand (left) belonging to a man who was alive in around 400BC. This high-resolution imaging meant they were even able to see the remains of blood vessels, nerves as well as different layers of skin (right)

Scientists were able to do the most detailed scan ever seen of a hand (left) belonging to a man who was alive in around 400BC. This high-resolution imaging meant they were even able to see the remains of blood vessels, nerves as well as different layers of skin (right)

Scientists were able to do the most detailed scan ever seen of a hand (left) belonging to a man who was alive in around 400BC. This high-resolution imaging meant they were even able to see the remains of blood vessels, nerves as well as different layers of skin (right)

Researchers led by the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm scanned the entire hand and then performed a detailed scan of the tip of the middle finger.

Both X-ray and conventional CT take advantage of the fact that materials absorb different amounts of X-rays.

Although this method works well for studying bone and other hard materials, for soft tissues the absorption contrast is too low to provide detailed information.

This is why researchers decided to use propagation-based imaging.

This method involves enhancing the contrast of X-ray images by detecting both the absorption as well as the way in which X-rays pass through a sample.

This is referred to as the ‘phase effect’.

The phase effect with X-rays is similar to how a ray of light changes direction as it passes through a lens.

Capturing both absorption and phase shift provides higher contrast for soft tissues.

This method involves enhancing the contrast of X-ray images by detecting both the absorption as well as the way in which X-rays pass through a sample. The phase effect with X-rays is similar to how a ray of light changes direction as it passes through a lens (pictured) 

This method involves enhancing the contrast of X-ray images by detecting both the absorption as well as the way in which X-rays pass through a sample. The phase effect with X-rays is similar to how a ray of light changes direction as it passes through a lens (pictured) 

This method involves enhancing the contrast of X-ray images by detecting both the absorption as well as the way in which X-rays pass through a sample. The phase effect with X-rays is similar to how a ray of light changes direction as it passes through a lens (pictured) 

HOW DOES PHASE-CONTRAST IMAGING WORK?

Both X-ray and conventional CT take advantage of the fact that materials absorb different amounts of X-rays.

Although this method works well for studying bone and other hard materials, for soft tissues the absorption contrast is too low to provide detailed information.

This is why researchers decided to use propagation-based imaging.

This method involves enhancing the contrast of X-ray images by detecting both the absorption as well as the way in which X-rays pass through a sample.

This is referred to as the ‘phase effect’.

The phase effect with X-rays is similar to how a ray of light changes direction as it passes through a lens.

Capturing both absorption and phase shift (phase-contrast imaging) provides higher contrast for soft tissues.

Currently soft-tissue paleopathology requires extraction and chemical processing of human tissue.

Due to how destructive this method it, it is considered unacceptable for analysis of lots of old and fragile specimens.

‘There is a risk of missing traces of diseases only preserved within the soft tissue if only absorption-contrast imaging is used,’ Dr Romell said.

‘With phase-contrast imaging, however, the soft tissue structures can be imaged down to cellular resolution, which opens up the opportunity for detailed analysis of the soft tissues.’

Researchers evaluated phase-contrast CT by imaging a mummified human right hand from ancient Egypt.

The hand, today in the collection of the Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities, was brought to Sweden at the end of the 19th century, along with other mummified body parts and a fragment of mummy cartonnage (papier-mâché case).

Researchers led by the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm studied the mummy which is believed to be that of a man who lived in around 400BC. They scanned the entire hand (pictured) and then performed a detailed scan of the tip of the middle finger 

Researchers led by the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm studied the mummy which is believed to be that of a man who lived in around 400BC. They scanned the entire hand (pictured) and then performed a detailed scan of the tip of the middle finger 

Researchers led by the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm studied the mummy which is believed to be that of a man who lived in around 400BC. They scanned the entire hand (pictured) and then performed a detailed scan of the tip of the middle finger 

‘With phase-contrast CT, ancient soft tissues can be imaged in a way that we have never seen before,’ Dr Romell said.

Currently soft-tissue paleopathology requires extraction and chemical processing of human tissue.

Due to how destructive this method it, it is considered unacceptable for analysis of lots of old and fragile specimens.

‘Just as conventional CT has become a standard procedure in the investigation of mummies and other ancient remains, we see phase-contrast CT as a natural complement to the existing methods,’ Dr Romell said.

‘We hope that phase-contrast CT will find its way to the medical researchers and archaeologists who have long struggled to retrieve information from soft tissues.’

Dr Romell also said that she believes ‘a widespread use of the phase-contrast method will lead to new discoveries in the field of paleopathology.’

 



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