As a two-time laparoscopic surgery patient, let me tell you: It’s not the best thing in the world, but it’s a lot better than old open-torso surgery, and improving all the time as imaging techniques, robotics, and doctors get used to the practice. Now, a breakthrough from Vanderbilt University may carry the principles of laparoscopy to a previously intractable part of the body: the brain.
Cranial blood clots, or intracerebral hemorrhages, typically have a 40 percent mortality rate, often due to how hard it is to get to them and the delicacy of their location. Survivors can often suffer brain damage due to the buildup of pressure inside the skull, which can only be alleviated by “debulking” the clots that prevent blood from draining from the brain.
That procedure has historically been ferociously difficult, but the Vanderbilt University team of engineers and physicians, headed by Professor Robert Webster III and Dr. Kyle Weaver, has a solution in the form of a steerable robotic needle guided by CT scanning technology.
The procedure sounds awfully scary: After locating the blood clot, surgeons would drill through a patient’s skull, insert the robotic needle, and let the robot take over to vacuum up the clot material. But the Vanderbilt team removed 92 percent of clots in simulations, a vast improvement over the 25 to 50 percent averaged in traditional surgery. Future work on the project would incorporate ultrasound imaging and computational models of the deformation of brain tissue to make extraction of the robotic needle easier and to minimize potential damage to the area.
Letting robot needles into your brain might sound too much like The Matrix right now, but the promise of minimally-invasive brain surgery within the next few years—Philip Swaney, a grad student with the project, told the Verge that it could “begin saving lives in the very near future”—is a huge breakthrough for medicine.