Mechanical finger conducts brain surgery

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

brain bot
This is a picture of the surgical robot from the University of Maryland. Looks just like a finger doesn’t it?

Did you know that when patients undergo brain surgery, they usually have to stay awake during the entire procedure? A simple slip of the surgeon’s hand can cause irreversible damage to a number of brain functions such as speech and language comprehension. In order to make sure there is no accidental brain damage, patients are constantly tested with flashcards to measure their visual and verbal skills during the procedure.

As such, there are times when brain cancer patients with tumors deep in their brains can’t get surgery to remove the cancerous cells, because the operation would simply be too risky. Well, it may have been before, but developing technology from University of Maryland researchers will flip brain surgery procedures on their heads!

They have spent the better part of four years designing a tiny robot to use in surgery. It essentially looks like a metallic finger, only with far more joints to allow for maximal flexibility. On the tip of the robot is an “electrocautery” tool, which uses jolts of electricity to shock those evil tumors into obliteration!

“The idea was to have a device that’s small but that can do all the work a surgeon normally does,” said J. Marc Simard, a neurosurgery professor from the University of  Maryland. “You could place this small robotic device inside a tumor and have it work its way around from within, removing pieces of diseased tissue.”

In addition to its awesome zapping abilities, the researchers claim the best part about the robot is its ability to be used during brain imaging. Usually, surgeons have to take brain pictures using a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine before surgery to get a sense of where they need to operate. However, while they are in surgery, different brain tissues often suddenly move about, causing them to look different from the picture. Since the tiny robot can be used while imaging the brain, it’ll be much easier to get a sense of where the tumors are. “Advancing brain surgery to this level where tiny machines or robots could navigate inside people’s heads while being directed by neurosurgeons with the help of MRI imaging… it’s beyond anything that most people dream of,” said Simard.

The current life expectancy of a person suffering from “glioblastomas” – a high-grade form of brain surgery – is about two years. This is mostly because tumors in their brain are too deep to surgically remove. Hopefully, this new device is ready soon so it can zap those tumors once and for all.

Featured image courtesy of A Health Blog on Flickr.  Image of surgical robot courtesy of NIBIB and University of Maryland.