Researchers from the University of Calgary have released the first version of NeuroArm – a surgeon-controlled robot for conducting brain surgery.
The key feature of the robot is that it is designed to work inside an MRI brain scanner.
MRI scans currently provide the most accurate structural image of the brain and therefore provide important information for planning operations.
Neurosurgeons also use MRI scans completed before surgery to guide the operation while it’s happening, using a method called stereotactic neurosurgery.
This allows surgical instruments to be guided to an exact spot in the brain by tracking their position in real time, in relation to the 3D scan completed earlier.
One disadvantage is that the brain scan can’t be updated as the brain is altered during the operation.
Being able to scan people while they’re having surgery might sound a simple idea, but MRI scans involve the patient being inside a tube surrounded by hugely powerful magnets, meaning the environment isn’t accommodating to surgeons who need free space and surgical steel.
NeuroArm has been designed to fit inside the tube, and crucially, is not made of any magnetic materials that will affect and be affected by the MRI machine.
This means the surgeon can update the brain scan and complete the operation by controlling the robot remotely.
He or she can do this by using a specially designed surgical workstation that provides a virtual interface to the robot arms, including force feedback on the tools, so the surgeon does not have to give up his ‘surgical touch’.
While the current set-up seems to involve the surgeon being located in the same building as the patient, it is interesting to speculate that, in the future, operations could be directed from hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
The combination of the accurate brain scan and the robot controlled tools also means that the surgeon should be able to attempt microsurgery on very fine brain structures.
You may be surprised to learn that robot-assisted neurosurgery isn’t particularly new and was introduced in the 1980s.
Brown University has a fantastic history of the technology and procedures if you want some background.