A new robot makes brain surgery for epilepsy easier

Engineers have developed a surgical robot that can perform brain surgery by entering through the cheek, allowing for a much quicker recovery.

It’s designed to help patients with severe epilepsy, for which the traditional treatment includes surgery to the part of the brain responsible for seizures, the hippocampus. Because this is located at the base of the brain, an operation normally involves drilling down from the top of the skull: an intense and risky procedure that understandably takes a long time to recover from.

So a team from Vanderbilt University in the U.S have come up with a better way. They made a robotic device that enters the brain from underneath by going through the cheek. It’s designed to be used inside an MRI so that surgeons can check on its progress, and contains a 1.14 mm nickel-titanium needle (one of the few metals compatible with MRIs) that can be steered along the delicate pathway to the brain.

The robot uses compressed air to move the needle into the right position one millimetre at a time. The needle is curved, meaning it’s easier to insert and steer. What’s more, thanks to design help from the Milwaukee School of Engineering, most of the device’s parts are 3D printed, meaning it’s relatively inexpensive to produce.

The engineers demonstrated their prototype at the Fluid Power Innovation and Research Conference in Nashville this week. The next stage is to test it on cadavers, to show that it’s safe for use on live humans too. Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Eric Barth, who led the project, says that the robot could be in regular use in operating rooms by 2024.

Image via Laboratory for the Design and Control of Energetic Systems, Vanderbilt University.

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Diane Shipley

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