Robot can provide steady hand for some surgeries
July 1, 1996
Web posted at: 8:30 a.m EDT
From Correspondent Rusty Dornin
MOUNTAIN VIEW, California (CNN) -- It takes a steady hand to be a surgeon, and researchers are finding that robots can help.
Researchers at NASA Ames Research Center in California are developing a robotic probe to pinpoint the location of brain tumors. The probe has its advantages. (782K QuickTime movie)
"It causes less damage to the brain because it's a smaller probe, and you would be able to get to precisely where the tumor is rather than overshooting and undershooting it," NASA researcher Robert Mah explained.
Doctors now insert probes manually. During surgery, the brain swells and the tumor can shift. There is the danger of hitting an artery.
The robotic probe has a pressure sensor and can determine the difference between normal and unhealthy brain tissue.
A 3-D picture tells surgeons how close they're getting to the tumor.
"When it encounters something different like an artery, it would stop and let the surgeon decide what to do next," Mah said.
For some neurosurgeons the probe offers an extension of the senses, but there is doubt whether a robotic sensor is better than human touch.
"My touch is very complicated," said Dr. Gary Heit, a neurosurgeon. "I feel temperature. I feel nuances of pressure and shades of vibration. And it's hard for an instrument to duplicate that."
Testing in space
But neurosurgeon Russell Andrews, one of the probe's developers, said doctors can always use more accurate sensing devices.
"For a surgeon to say my hands are better than any machine is just living in the 1960s -- if not earlier than that," he said.
Researchers aim to test devices such as the probe during lengthy space flights. If an astronaut were injured on a long trip, doctors on Earth could help a medical specialist on the spacecraft guide the probe.
"The robot would actually go in there and start phase one of the procedure, and whenever it encounters anything that is beyond safe limits it would stop," Mah said.
Such a scenario is not expected to happen anytime soon. For now, researchers are testing the device on blocks of tofu. The probe could be tested on a person later this year.
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