The thought of a robot burrowing its way through your cheek to access your brain certainly sounds unsettling. But for conditions that require access to areas like the hippocampus located on the underside, it's actually far less invasive than cutting open the skull on top and having to drill through the entire brain to reach it. Which means there's far less recovery time for the patient.

The new surgical robot was designed and built by researchers from Vanderbilt University to help patients dealing with such extreme cases of epilepsy that part of the hippocampus, the area of the brain where seizures originate, needs to be removed. But designing a robot to access the underside of a patient's brain through its cheek posed some unique challenges.

Unlike accessing the hippocampus through the top of the brain, it's not a straight path when coming in through the cheek. So the researchers had to develop a shape-memory alloy 1.14-millimeter nickel-titanium needle made from various segments, including some that curve to avoid obstacles, that slowly advances into the patient using compressed air.


The other issue was that human operators needed to be able to see where the needle was traveling, which requires both the robot and the patient to be inside an MRI machine during the procedure. And given the incredibly strong magnetic field created by the MRI machine, metal parts couldn't be used whatsoever.

So the robot is mostly made from 3D-printed plastic components that aren't affected by the MRI machine. It also means the robot is relatively cheap to produce and repair, and as it moves toward cadaver testing, its creators are optimistic it could see use on actual patients within the decade. [Vanderbilt University via Gizmag]