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This paper presents a new and original variational framework for atlas-based segmentation. The proposed framework integrates both the active contour framework, and the dense deformation fields of optical flow framework. This framework is quite general and encompasses many of the state-of-the-art atlas-based segmentation methods. It also allows to perform the registration of atlas and target images based on only selected structures of interest. The versatility and potentiality of the proposed framework are demonstrated by presenting three diverse applications: In the first application, we show how the proposed framework can be used to simulate the growth of inconsistent structures like a tumor in an atlas. In the second application, we estimate the position of nonvisible brain structures based on the surrounding structures and validate the results by comparing with other methods. In the final application, we present the segmentation of lymph nodes in the Head and Neck CT images, and demonstrate how multiple registration forces can be used in this framework in an hierarchical manner.