ARCHIVED - Virtual brain surgery intrigues thousands in Washington

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December 01, 2010— Ottawa, Ontario

Almost a million people discovered the importance of science and technology in their lives while visiting the inaugural USA Science & Engineering Festival, held in Washington, D.C. in October 2010. And one of the top-billed medical technologies they discovered hailed from Canada. 

Getting into the spirit, an orthopedics resident at Washington University dons his scrubs to try NeuroTouch.

Getting into the spirit, an orthopedics resident at Washington University dons his scrubs to try NeuroTouch.

NRC was invited to exhibit its virtual brain surgery system at the festival, joining more than 500 leading American science organizations to stimulate the interest of youth in careers in science, technology, engineering and math. The participants collectively hosted more than 750 interactive exhibits spanning aerospace, green energy, medicine, biotechnology, climatology, robotics, nanotechnology, botany, neuroscience, genetics and many other scientific disciplines. Culminating the festival was a two-day expo on the National Mall on October 23 and 24 that featured fun, hands-on science activities as well as stage shows, talks and performances. 

Leading up to the festival, the National Academy of Engineering had asked some of the world’s leading technological thinkers to identify today’s biggest challenges that could be addressed through science and engineering. The panel came up with 14, which range from making solar energy more economical to reverse-engineering the brain. Then began the hunt for examples of progress on these challenges.

Some 1,400 people visited the Disney tent where they could try the NRC virtual-reality brain surgery tool.

Some 1,400 people visited the Disney tent where they could try the NRC virtual-reality brain surgery tool.

One of the advances they found was NeuroTouch, a virtual-reality brain surgery simulator. Seeing the connection between this simulation technology and three of the grand challenges — enhance virtual reality, engineer better medicines, and reverse-engineer the brain — the National Academy invited NRC to showcase its technology alongside Disney’s in a virtual reality exhibit. 

The NeuroTouch simulator takes magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data and turns it into a virtual model of a patient’s brain. The simulator allows a surgeon to visualize a particular patient’s brain as it would be seen through an opening in the skull. Attached to the simulator is an instrument that mimics a key tool the surgeon will be using during the actual operation. The tool sends signals to the hand that replicate the sensations the surgeon would feel in the operating room.

Dr. Ryan D’Arcy, an NRC neuroscientist who helped develop NeuroTouch, was on hand with other colleagues. “Disney and the National Academy of Engineering invited us to share their exhibit space, which focused on virtual reality technologies,” he says. “People saw the engineering behind Disney’s upcoming film, ‘TRON: Legacy’, and an intriguing exhibit on 3D scanners that can capture 3D objects in a virtual space. People lined up at our tent for more than an hour and about 1,400 came through — some even returning the next day to try the virtual brain surgery simulator.” 

Left to right: Sujoy Ghosh Hajra (NRC), Vint Cerf (one of the founding fathers of the Internet), Dr. David Clarke (a staff neurosurgeon at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax) and Dr. Ryan d’Arcy (NRC) at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington. Dr. Clarke was the first surgeon to use NeuroTouch to prepare for a real brain surgery, successfully performed in 2009.

Left to right: Sujoy Ghosh Hajra (NRC), Vint Cerf (one of the founding fathers of the Internet), Dr. David Clarke (a staff neurosurgeon at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax) and Dr. Ryan d’Arcy (NRC) at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington. Dr. Clarke was the first surgeon to use NeuroTouch to prepare for a real brain surgery, successfully performed in 2009.

“When it came to conducting virtual brain surgery, people didn’t immediately understand the concept of a simulator,” adds Dr. D’Arcy. “But they were very interested in the idea of removing a tumour and the fact that they could feel it. That was the science fiction part of it, that you could touch the virtual brain.”

Grand Challenges of Engineering

Supporting the USA Science & Engineering Festival, experts identified 14 grand engineering challenges:

  • Make solar energy more economical
  • Provide energy from fusion
  • Develop carbon sequestration methods
  • Manage the nitrogen cycle
  • Provide access to clean water
  • Restore and improve urban infrastructure
  • Advance health informatics
  • Engineer better medicines
  • Reverse-engineer the brain
  • Prevent nuclear terror
  • Secure cyberspace
  • Enhance virtual reality
  • Advance personalized learning
  • Engineer the tools of scientific discovery

Related information

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada
613-991-1431
media@nrc-cnrc.gc.ca

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