Sept. 1, 2008

Robotics and imaging: Staying ahead of the brain

Brave new world in health


Grady Semmens

It’s hard to fix a problem if you can’t see it. While it may seem like common sense, in the world of medicine, finding ways to peer inside the living body has been one of the most vexing puzzles. From X-rays to CAT scans to nuclear MRIs, each improvement in medical imaging has resulted in huge advances in health care.

One of these progressions is unfolding at the University of Calgary in the area of neurosurgery. The world’s first robot for brain surgery is guided by real-time magnetic resonance imaging, leading to unprecedented surgical accuracy at the microscopic level.

Built by the Canadian company responsible for the Canadarm space robot, neuroArm was unveiled last year after six years of development by a team of surgeons, engineers and physicists and educational experts led by the U of C’s Dr. Garnette Sutherland. The first human surgeries using neuroArm took place earlier this year. Using the movable, intraoperative MRI equipment in the Seaman Family MR Research Centre, the robot enables specially trained surgeons to operate on the brain with unparalleled precision.

“Many of our microsurgical techniques evolved in the 1960s, and have pushed surgeons to the limits of their precision, accuracy, dexterity and stamina,” says Sutherland, professor of neurosurgery with the Faculty of Medicine and the Calgary Health Region. “NeuroArm dramatically enhances the spatial resolution at which surgeons operate, and shifts surgery from the organ towards the cell level.”

At the same time, Sutherland’s colleagues in the Faculty of Medicine are coming up with innovative ways to visualize the human body in order to enhance diagnosis and treatment of injuries, illness and disease. Researchers such as Christoph Sensen and Ross Mitchell are using virtual reality and computer animation technology to create life-like models of the body, organs and tissues that will help doctors better prepare for surgery and provide powerful new tools for training the next generation of experts