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If You’ve Seen One Skull X-ray, You’ve Seen …

December 11, 2013
Written by: , Filed in: Musculoskeletal Radiology
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Using X-rays of a person’s skull to identify human remains, a common forensic practice, may not work very well, a new study finds. It appears that making a positive identification by comparing the cranial vault outlines of skulls is like telling identical twins apart: even experts aren’t necessarily good at it.

The cranial vault outline consists of the skull profile from the eyebrow ridge to the point where the skull meets the back of the neck. Ann Ross, PhD, a professor of anthropology at North Carolina State University and a forensics expert, said the outline is used when dental records are too incomplete for identification of a body—a victim of murder or a natural disaster, for example—or simply unavailable.

“But these people may have been in car accidents or other incidents that led them to have their skulls X-rayed in emergency rooms or elsewhere,” she said. “And those skull X-rays have often been used to make IDs. I’ve done it myself.”

Apparently, nobody has previously tested how much cranial vault outlines actually vary between individuals, Dr. Ross said:

But now we’ve tried to validate this technique, and our research shows that the shape of the skull isn’t enough to make a positive ID.

Dr. Ross was quoted in an NC State news release. She is senior author of a paper about the research that was published online November 25 in Journal of Forensic Sciences.

The researchers asked 106 members of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences to look at 14 antemortem skull X-rays and find the 5 that matched 5 postmortem X-rays. Only 47 percent of the participants accurately matched all 5 skulls. Those with PhDs did slightly better; 56 percent got a perfect score.

Ashley Maxwell, the paper’s other author, worked on the research as a graduate student at NC State. She’s now a PhD student in anthropology at the University of South Florida.

“This doesn’t mean that cranial vault outlines aren’t useful,” she said. “For example, outlines can be valuable if teeth or other features are missing or have been destroyed. But it does mean that cranial vault outlines shouldn’t be given too much weight.”

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Six men have been treated for symptoms of radiation exposure after a theft of radioactive material in Mexico. Unfortunately, one is apparently an innocent victim. For details, see our Facebook page.

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