‘Training brain’ responds to user’s touch, replicating the qualities of the real thing

[From The Gazette in Montreal; the original story includes a 2:52 minute video]

This is your brain. Any questions?

Simulator for neurosurgeons. ‘Training brain’ responds to user’s touch, replicating the qualities of the real thing

By MONIQUE MUISE, The Gazette September 16, 2010

It looked like a brain, felt like a brain, even pulsated ever so slightly like a brain, but the lifelike organ unveiled to reporters and medical professionals yesterday in Montreal was actually a highly sophisticated imposter.

Made up of detailed MRI images transferred into a computer to create a remarkably real 3-D simulation, the “training brain” is the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital’s newest technological marvel, and officials are hoping it will completely transform how neurosurgeons learn and hone their skills.

“This training system uses a first-of-its-kind virtual reality surgical simulation technology,” said Gary Goodyear, federal minister of state for science and technology, who helped unveil the new equipment at Mc-Gill University. “(It) signals a significant leap forward in surgical education and training.”

The actual simulator consists of two extremely sensitive mechanical arms, which the user manipulates in order to control virtual surgical instruments that are seen in 3-D on a screen mounted at eye level. The real breakthrough, however, lies in the fact that the simulated brain actually responds to the user’s touch, producing the same kinds of resistance and vibrations that real brain tissue would produce.

“That’s the novelty here,” explained Dr. Rolando Del Maestro, director of the brain tumour research centre at the hospital. “You can actually feel the suction when you use the suction tool. … Every time the heart beats, the brain actually pulses, and you can feel it.”

Del Maestro said he hopes the new technology, which will be introduced in seven hospitals across the country starting this fall, will help cut down training time, weed out the residents who don’t have the necessary hand dexterity to perform complex surgeries, and reduce the risks associated with a resident’s first encounter with a live brain. One day, he added, it could even serve as a testing tool.

“Our pilots are reassessed regularly, and there is no reason why surgeons should not be assessed in the same way,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult and many surgeons won’t like it, but I think eventually we’re going to have to go into a simulator on a regular basis and prove that we can do the job.”

Eventually, the simulator will be able to make use of the brain scans of specific patients, meaning surgeons could practise on an identical copy of the brain they’ll be encountering in the real world.

Sixth-year resident Nicholas Phaneuf, who is nearing the end of his training and has already operated on actual brains, said he’s very impressed with how “real” the simulator feels.

“It really does compare,” he said. “The simulator will also measure things like how much tumour you’ve removed, how much brain you’ve removed, and how long it took you. So you can see that you’ve reached a certain proficiency level.”

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