NASA aids in virtual surgery

Scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center have developed a computer-based tool that allows surgeons to practice reconstructive head and brain surgery and to visualize the outcomes more accurately.

The "software scalpel" works with 3-D images of the head and brain that are created by combining a series of high-fidelity computer tomography scans using software developed by Ames, called Reconstruction of Serial Sections.

A physician wearing 3-D glasses can see the software image of the patient's head from all angles on a computer monitor and use the mouse as a scalpel, said Dr. Muriel Ross, director of the Ames Center for Bioinformatics, part of the National Biocomputation Center.

"[Surgeons] just click around in this [software] mesh the way [they] would cut, and the software will outline that cut," Ross said. "Now you have a tool whereby you can cut out a piece of bone and move it to a new position."

Dr. Stephen Schendel, chairman of the Department of Functional Reconstruction at Stanford University, Stanford, Calif., said the software can be used for surgical planning and teaching for residents. He said the software could one day be used as a training device for surgeons similar to the flight-simulation training that is required for pilots.

"We're hoping to create a library of rare cases where residents can look at anatomy...and try their hand at correcting [the problem]...so we can be assured of the adequacy of their training," Schendel said.

In surgical planning it is very difficult for physicians to plan complex procedures using only 2-D images, such as X-rays, Schendel said. Also, surgeons working without this type of advanced technology are not able to have an accurate picture of what a patient would look like after an actual operation.

Ross said NASA researchers are working on an addition to the scalpel software that will allow physicians to "snap" a face back onto the 3-D image of the "virtual skull" that the physician is using to practice the surgery. The next step will be to develop "force feedback" into the software, a feature that will allow physicians using the technology to feel resistance or the force resulting from the simulated cut, she said. This is designed to augment the visual feedback with more realistic aspects of the surgery.

Researchers are working on developing executable code that could be given to other medical institutions so they could incorporate the software with images of other body parts for allow surgical simulations. The NASA team is interested in working with mastectomy patents who require breast reconstruction and with children who need reconstructive surgery to correct deformities of the head and face.

The NASA Bioinformatics Center resulted from a partnership between NASA and Stanford. The center uses computer technology in order to improve medical practices.

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