The body’s art and soul.

Computer-imaging expert presents

the heart in all its beauty, vitality.

by: Steve Sternberg




I n an average adult, it beats 72 times a minute, 103,680 times a day, 37.8 million times a year. (Now - - multiply by your age - - - Whow!)

Over a lifetime, the heart pumps 1 million barrels of blood,  enough to fill four supertankers.

What’s more, the heart does its work invisibly, tucked behind the breastbone and between the lungs, where even the most sophisticated and vivid imaging devices do not, can not fully penetrate.

For years, doctors have been forced to rely on clues to the heart’s performance. Using stethoscopes, scanners and computers, they superimpose sounds and foggy images over their knowledge of anatomy to picture in their minds’ eye the heart’s inner mysteries.

Artist, photographer and computer-imaging expert Alexander Tsiaras isn’t content to view images on the retina of his imagination. Nor is he satisfied with images that are rich in information but lack visual appeal. His book, The InVision Guide to a Healthy Heart (Collins, $19.95), out this month, November 2005, displays the artistry of the heart.

The facts that describe the relentless activity of this essential pump, collected by Tsiaras’ collaborator Shirley Chan may be remarkable. But they can’t begin to match the pictures they are used to introduce.

There’s the luminous cover photo of a human heart, encased in its pear-shaped golden sac, visible beneath dim ribs in a male chest; a series of images depicting a fetal heart twisting itself into chambers; and startling cross-sections of blood vessels showing the buildup of blood-blocking plaques.

He calls the images “scientific visualizations.” They’re built by taking images from CT scans, Mrls and other medical techniques, digitally dissecting them and then marrying them to produce hearts, blood vessels and tissues that have depth, heft and the appearance of vitality.

It isn’t easy, and it isn’t photography. It takes special software that Tsiaras helped develop . “It takes 1,000 hours (125 8-hour days) to mine a high-resolution scan of the heart,” he says. Celebrated heart surgeon Mehmet Oz of New York Presbyterian-Columbia University, who wrote the book’s foreword, says the images remind us just how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. “When I was first taught medicine in the mid-80s, we would spend a couple of years learning to listen to heart sounds,” he says. “Medical students today don’t know how to listen to heart sounds. They don’t have to. They have ultrasound. Why bother?”

But most medical scanners still can’t portray organs pulsing with life in pictures that the eye can read and the mind can interpret. Oz says he is able, after years immersed in the anatomy of the living heart, to mentally transform 2-D scans into 3-D pictures.

The challenge, Oz says, is to take the techniques Tsiaras has pioneered and adapt them for use in medical settings. “What if we could take the images we currently use to diagnose heart problems and make them come alive so all the guesswork is gone?”

Tsiaras, 51, says he became interested in anatomy when he assembled his first Visible Man model as a boy. A trip to his family’s homeland of Greece piqued his interest further by exposing him to burial rites that involved exhuming bodies after five years to judge the deceased’s sinfulness by how much flesh is left. (Thinner is better.) The trip resulted in a book.

An assignment to write about and photograph his brother’s work as an ophthalmic resident at the University of Pennsylvania led to an interest in medical imaging. Sixteen years ago, he expanded his interest to computers. His first computer-derived images opened a window into the womb to explore the miracle From Conception to Birth. Next came The Architecture and Design of Man and Woman.

Now he has new visions to share. He hopes that showing people the difference between a healthy heart and a heart downstream from a plaque-clogged artery will inspire them to stay healthy.

With funding from the drug firm Novartis and Philips Medical System, Tsiaras hopes to publish four guides a year for the next ten years on sexual health, depression, obesity, and many other subjects that will inspire people to make much better care of themselves.

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