Scientists have made new discoveries about the human spleen by using virtual reality glasses to take virtual exploratory tours through a complex mesh of spleen blood vessels.

Researchers at the Universities of Bayreuth and Marburg in Germany succeeded in creating high-definition images of human spleen blood vessels which they magnified thousands of times. They then used virtual reality glasses to tour these images, allowing them to view the spleen in immense detail despite blood vessels being only a few thousandths of a millimetre wide. By doing this they were able to clarify the structure and path of capillaries in the organ.

Fundamental to the research is the division of the spleen into two areas, the white pulp and the red pulp, which perform different functions. The white pulp contains mainly two different types of white blood cells: B and T lymphocytes. It has very few capillaries. At the surface of the white pulp – particularly at the surface of B lymphocyte clusters known as follicles – a tight network of capillaries is situated. These are mainly supplied by a more coarsely structured capillary network of the surrounding red pulp. At the surface of the follicles and in the red pulp many capillaries have open ends.

Dr Oleg Lobachev, co-leader of the study, said: “Our 3D models thus enable one to clearly see how the spleen is involved in blood circulation in the human body. The blood appears to flow from the open capillary ends in the splenic red pulp without being contained in vessels, before it re-enters the venous circulation. Here it comes into direct contact with macrophages, which free the blood of harmful foreign materials and aged red blood cells.”

Lobachev and his research team, also co-led by Professor Dr Michael Guthe in Bayreuth and Professor Dr Birte Steiniger in Marburg, created the high-definition 3D models of the blood vessels in bone marrow and spleen in 2017. Their recently developed software has now enabled them to put together 3D models of these images at thousandfold magnification.

The virtual reality glasses allow blood vessels to be examined in much greater detail than was previously possible. Images of the tissue sections can be superimposed on the resulting magnified models, allowing direct comparisons which can facilitate the ongoing quality control of the models.

The research team believes virtual reality technology is particularly revealing in the area of basic medical research. However, the researchers suggest that routinely employing the technology in diagnostics will require faster computers capable of processing huge amounts of data in a short time.

A virtual tour video of a human spleen blood vessel network can be found at: