Mechanical engineers working to improve brain surgery for treating epilepsy have unveiled a machine that sounds like it came from a sci-fi movie. At a recent conference, Vanderbilt University researchers presented a pneumatic robot that is designed to drill through a patient’s cheek, guide a steerable needle to the base of the brain, and then destroy malfunctioning tissue causing the disorder.
Their device, made of 3-D printed plastic pieces and a shape-memory alloy steerable needle, can operate inside a working MRI machine to let doctors monitor progress millimeter by millimeter. Their needle is composed of a mixture of nickel and titanium, which isn’t affected by the MRI’s powerful magnetic fields.
The problem the team is trying to address is that a majority of epileptic seizures occur in the hippocampus, an area near the base of the brain. While surgeons now probe for the source of epileptic seizures through the cheek of a patient, current treatments to fix the problem involve going in through the top of the skull with straight needles. This means that doctors must traverse other delicate structures of the brain and travel farther than if they could enter the skull through the cheek.