Researchers at the University of Nottingham have developed a virtual reality brain surgery simulator for trainee surgeons that combines haptics with three-dimensional graphics to give what they claim is the most realistic model in the world.

A ‘map’ of the brain surface (below) is produced by the software, which also renders the tweezers (on the right) or other surgical implement and shows any incisions made into the virtual brain (centre of the picture). The simulator is controlled by a device held by the user, which uses a robotic mechanism to give the same pressure and resistance as it would if it were touching a real brain.

Map of brain on virtual surgery simulator

Dr Michael Vloeberghs, senior lecturer in paediatric neurosurgery at the University’s School of Human Development, who led the development team, said that the new system would benefit trainees: "Traditionally a large amount of the training that surgeons get is by observing and performing operations under supervision. However, pressures on resources, staff shortages and new EU directives on working hours mean that this teaching time is getting less and less.

“This simulator will allow surgeons to become familiar with instruments and practice brain surgery techniques with absolutely no risk to the patient whatsoever."

The pilot software was developed with the Queen’s Medical Centre, in Nottingham, which contains a Simulation Centre in which dummies are often used for surgical training.

Dr Vloeberghs says that the haptic system is an improvement on the existing system: “Dummies can only go so far – you’re still limited by the physical precense, and you can’t do major surgery on dummies… you can simulate electrically and phonetically what is happening, but nothing more than that."

Adib Becker, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the university, said that the technology could be developed for the future, and that brain surgery online could even be possible: "If you project maybe four or five years from now, it may be possible for a surgeon to operate on a patient totally remotely.

“So the surgeons would be located somewhere else in the world and can communicate through the internet, and can actually feel the operation as they are seeing it on the screen."

The team hopes that the piloted software, which was funded by a grant of £300,000 from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), will help train surgeons to a higher level before their first operation on live patients, thereby increasing safety.