The primary function of Forensic anthropology is to help identify not only the cause of a person’s death, but also who that person was, assisting with identification and primarily relies on studying bone structure and bone tissue. There are other aspects of a person that can be revealed by bones including diseases they may have had, injuries, age and more, painting a fuller picture of a deceased person than their mere appearance can.
The rate of opioid deaths continues to increase year to year and is the reason why a grant from the National Institute of Justice is being given to research the effects of the drug on bone characteristics for forensic anthropology. Janna M. Andronowski, Ph.D., a forensic anthropologist interested in the study of bone adaptation through aging and disease, explains why it is important:
“The effects of disease on human bones can impact age-at-death estimates, and prolonged drug use is no exception,” says Dr. Andronowski.
Drug use over a long period can cause adverse effects on the perceived age of bones, making someone who dies in their 20’s appear to the forensic examiner as if they are in their 60’s, for instance. “Current evidence suggests that opioids upset the balance of bone remodeling towards more destruction and less formation of bone, thus current microscopic methods developed on healthy cases may not be useful in the assessment of such individuals, resulting in severely compromised age-at-death estimates.”
Considering that many who die of overdoses come from marginalized communities, identifying the person becomes difficult if one of the only clues to identify them has been altered by drug use. The research aims to create more accurate identification of individuals after death, but there are other considerations and implications of the information that may be uncovered by the studies under the financial grant.
Opioid use has very little in the way of long-term known effects on a user other than the addiction and withdrawal symptoms themselves. Cocaine, for instance, is well known to cause many kinds of physical damage throughout the body. Opioid use is simply seen as dangerous because it is addictive and an overdose can be fatal. By learning more about the effects of opioids in the long term on post-mortem users, these side-effects can be distributed to potential users especially those who are offered painkillers like oxycontin by professional physicians.
The study will use cutting edge 3D X-ray imaging technology which can examine microscopic bone structures typically used to examine age-at-death estimations in forensics. The process where bone structures change, bone modelling, is already known to happen with long term opioid addiction, but the study will has the possibility of determining the exact effects and nature of that change.
“The ultimate goal of this work is to discover the true impact of opioid abuse on bone microstructure and prepare new guidelines for routine microscopic analysis,” added Andronowski.
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