NSF puts bite into forensic research

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The lost, found

To help forensic experts identify missing individuals, National Science Foundation researchers are developing a system to automate matching of dental records.

Like fingerprints, no two people's dental records are exactly the same, said Gamal Fahmy, a research assistant professor at West Virginia University.

Initially, the technology will try to put names to previously unidentified human remains. A set of teeth is the biometric identifier that stays most intact after death, especially in extreme conditions, Fahmy said.

He and other researchers at Michigan State University and the University of Miami are developing what they call the Automated Dental Identification System, modeled after the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System. The FBI is providing test data and trying out prototypes.

Fahmy said the Justice Department has a large database of information on unidentified corpses. It also has a database of missing people and dental records for many of them. But forensics investigators looking for matches between the two data sets must compare the dental records by hand'a nearly impossible task.

The NSF-funded application would sift through the database of possible matches, comparing them against a test subject. Analysts would look at the closest matches through a Web interface, and a dental examiner would make the final decision on identity.

Contour map

The prototype currently uses MatLab mathematical software from MathWorks Inc. of Natick, Mass., to visually outline the contours of each tooth and X-ray record. Custom programs written in C match the outlines and estimate the probability that a tooth belongs to a certain missing person.

Although the prototype can readily identify individual teeth, the team is trying to scale it up to match entire sets of teeth, Fahmy said. It is also working on the problems of fillings and missing teeth subsequent to an X-ray.

NSF has provided about $1 million in funding for the research, with additional funds from the National Institute of Justice.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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