How well do you know your body, inside and out? Appendix to adrenal glands, brain to biceps, cornea to cruciate ligaments–these are all pieces of our anatomy and we all have them. But do you know where to find them? This week we feature some really exciting citizen science from Dr. Adam Taylor of the Lancaster Medical School in the UK. He and his colleagues have partnered with the Zooniverse to find out what the members of the general public know about their own body and why that is important. For more information about research and education in the anatomical sciences, please visit the American Association of Anatomists and The Anatomical Society. Happy reading! –JMO
By Adam Taylor, PhD, Clinical Anatomy Learning Centre, Lancaster University, UK
For many of us, our anatomy—the structure of our body and the parts that comprise it—just is. We use our anatomy every single day for countless purposes (breathing, eating, seeing, etc.). Yet, the average person doesn’t know much about where various parts reside or how they work. Take for example our small intestine. How many of us know that the inner lining of the small intestine contains hundreds of ridges that make it look like the ridges on a crinkle-cut potato chip? These ridges increase the surface area of the small intestine’s lining, which allows more efficient absorption of nutrients from partially digested food. But this ridged structure is not unique to the small intestine; it can be seen in the lining of stomach, the surface of the brain, and several other places too. And the reason that crinkle-cut potato chips are structured this way is to increase the surface area to hold flavor particles (sounds appetizing when put this way, huh?)—this is why they taste better or at least have more flavor.
Most people who work in healthcare have studied anatomy at one time or another. Some, like nurses and physical therapists have studied anatomy for only a year or two, and others such as surgeons and pathologists have studied the discipline for many years. A solid understanding of anatomy and variation among individuals is key; just as no two people are completely identical to look at, this is even more true for their internal anatomy. There is huge variation internally to the complex relationship of structures, which is why surgeons spend so much studying anatomy.
Why does the public need to know about their anatomy?
As mentioned above, we all know something about anatomy, although the amount we know certainly varies from person to person. For example, we can all identify structures that we can see externally such as our eyes and our ears. There are some internal structures, like our brain, that are also easily identified by most. However, many other internal structures do not fare as well because most of the public has little or no idea where they are located, even though it is often these structures that cause us pain or are frequently overcome with disease. For example, the appendix—once thought to be a nonfunctional organ held over from our evolutionary ancestors, although now thought to play important roles in the immune system and in restoring “good” bacteria to the gut after bouts of gastrointestinal illness—can be associated with inflammation and pain (i.e., appendicitis). Appendix pain manifests towards the bottom right corner of the abdomen initially and migrates under the navel as it continues. This is not common knowledge, but this concept of pain starting in one place and migrating elsewhere is called “referred pain” and is discussed in depth in anatomy courses for medical professionals because knowledge of anatomy is a fundamental part of their diagnostic tool kit. Knowing how to recognize appendicitis allows health professionals to plot a course of action. Similarly, cancers of many organs can also manifest as pain or discomfort and it is the anatomical knowledge of medical professionals in their examination and looking at diagnostic images (like CT scans and MRIs) that helps diagnose the pathology.
Another important example of how understanding anatomy is critical to understanding disease centers on the prostate, and important organ for reproduction. Research suggests that only about 50% of men in the UK know where the prostate is. This is problematic because nearly 50,000 men in the UK (and 165,000 men in the US) are diagnosed with prostate cancer every year. If 50% of them have no knowledge of the prostate’s location or its function, it places them at significant risk of not detecting prostate cancer early enough for effective treatment.
If we don’t understand some basics about our anatomy, it is more difficult for us to recognize when something may be wrong with our bodies and to advocate for our own health to our health care providers.
So what does the public know about their anatomy?
Along with colleagues at Lancaster University, UK, I recently published a study that assessed the public’s knowledge of anatomy. At a public outreach event, we asked participants to place 20 organs or anatomical structures on to a blank outline of the human body. Along with this simple activity, we collected standard demographic information about the participants, including age, gender, highest educational level, occupation, and if they had visited a healthcare professional in the last week. We found that the number of correctly identified structures increased significantly with age, before dropping off in older age. Males were better than females at identifying muscles but not internal organs. We found no difference based on the highest educational qualification, although those with minimal or no higher education scored worse than those with higher levels of education. (Thankfully, those who worked in healthcare answered significantly more questions correctly that than those who did not!)
All participants in the study successfully identified the location of the brain; next most successful was the cornea. At the other end of the spectrum organs such as the adrenal glands, gallbladder, and spleen were the worst answered structures with less than 15, 20 and 25% of participants answering these structures correctly.
Interestingly we also found no difference in scores between those who attended a healthcare professional in the last 7 days and those who did not – suggesting that exposure to the organ or structure in healthcare or by Googling afterward did not improve participants ability to locate the structures.
Building on this research, we have begun a new study in collaboration with the Zooniverse (www.zooniverse.org). The Zooniverse is the world’s leading platform for online citizen science. Led by a team of researchers at the University of Oxford, the Zooniverse enables researchers to build their own citizen science project and connect with a global community of nearly 2 million volunteers, who together make otherwise impossible research tractable. Our Zooniverse project, ‘Where are my body organs?’, will not only improve public engagement with the subject of anatomy, but will enable further study of what the general public know about human anatomy. Long-term objectives of this research include to;
- Help teach people about their own body, health and well being
- Help design curriculum content for teaching doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals
- Aid people in utilizing their knowledge to make informed decisions about their health and how they use healthcare services.
To contribute to this new Citizen Science Project, ‘Where are my body organs?’, please click here. We are trying to involve 100,000 participants in this research!
If you’re interested in what other Citizen Science projects you can get involved with, visit the Zooniverse here.
Dr. Adam Taylor is a Senior Lecturer in Anatomy and Director of the Clinical Anatomy Learning Centre at Lancaster Medical School, Lancaster University, UK. He is responsible for design, delivery and assessment of all anatomy education to medical students on the course and he works closely with physicians and other healthcare professionals. He has designed innovative ways to deliver anatomy resources and learning to the public through Lancaster’s Campus in the City project, public lectures, and Anatomy Nights. He also has pioneered research into what the public know about anatomy and his latest project offers the biggest global opportunity for researchers and educators to understand what the public know about anatomy and how we can use this to inform teaching and healthcare in the future.