U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Novel Approach To Determine Post Mortem Interval Using Neutron Radiography

NCJ Number
Forensic Science International Volume: 251 Dated: June 2015 Pages: 11-21
Date Published
June 2015
11 pages

This study performed neutron radiography of decaying canine tissues to evaluate the post-mortem interval (PMI) by measuring the changes in hydrogen (H) content.


One of the most difficult challenges in forensic research is to objectively determine the post-mortem interval (PMI). The accuracy of PMI is critical for determining the timeline of events surrounding a death. Most PMI techniques rely on gross morphological changes of cadavers that are highly sensitive to taphonomic factors. Recent studies have demonstrated that even exhumed individuals exposed to the same environmental conditions with similar PMIs can present different stages of decomposition. After death, tissue undergoes sequential changes consisting of organic and inorganic phase variations, as well as a gradual reduction of tissue water content. Hydrogen (H) is the primary contributor to neutron radiography (NR) contrast in biological specimens because (1) it is the most abundant element in biological tissues and (2) its nucleus scatters thermal and cold neutrons more strongly than any other atomic nucleus. These contrast differences can be advantageous in a forensic context to determine small changes in hydrogen concentrations. In the current study, dog cadavers were used as a model for human cadavers. Canine tissues and cadavers were exposed to controlled (laboratory settings at the University of Tennessee, College of Veterinary Medicine) and uncontrolled (University of Tennessee Anthropology Research Facility) environmental conditions, respectively. Neutron radiographs were supplemented with photographs and histology data to assess the decompositional stages of cadavers. Results demonstrated that the increase in neutron transmission likely corresponded to a decrease in hydrogen content in the tissue, which was correlated with the decay time of the tissue. Tissues depleted in hydrogen were brighter in the neutron transmission radiographs of skeletal muscles, lung, and bone, under controlled conditions. Over a period of 10 days, changes in neutron transmission through lung and muscle were found to be higher than bone by 8.3 percent, 7.0 percent, and 2.0 percent, respectively. Results measured during uncontrolled conditions were more difficult to assess, so further studies are necessary. In conclusion, neutron radiography may be used to detect changes in hydrogen abundance that can be correlated with the post-mortem interval. (Publisher abstract modified)

Date Published: June 1, 2015