New device will allow brain surgery through cheek, helping people with epilepsy

Ph.D. candidate David Comber, left, and Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Eric Barth

For those most severely affected, treating epilepsy can mean drilling into the skull – invasive, dangerous and with a long recovery period.

But a team based at Vanderbilt University School of Engineering wondered: What if it were possible to address epileptic seizures and other brain disorders in a less invasive way? It would mean inventing a more flexible needle, mounted on a robot that could work inside a magnetic resonance imaging scanner.

That device could be in operating rooms within the next decade. Eric Barth, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and David Comber, who graduates next year with his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, created it.

Barth said the team worked backwards from understanding the capabilities they already had to where those could be applied for the greatest benefit.

“I’ve done a lot of work in my career on the control of pneumatic systems,” Barth said. “We knew we had this ability to have a robot in the MRI scanner, doing something in a way that other robots could not. Then we thought, ‘What can we do that would have the highest impact?’”

Dr. Joseph Neimat

Barth and Comber are working with Associate Professor of Neurological Surgery Dr. Joseph Neimat on such a device. Produced in plastic on a 3D printer, it uses a 1.5 millimeter nickel-titanium needle that operates like a mechanical pencil, with concentric tubes that allow surgeons to enter the brain through the cheek. Unlike other metals, nickel-titanium is compatible with MRIs.

It’s powered by compressed air and advances the needle segments, some of them curved, a millimeter at a time. Right now, neurosurgeons only diagnose through the cheek-based approach, Comber said, using a straight, hollow needle to implant an electrode to track brain activity.

With the new device, they could diagnose and then ablate the hippocampus that’s causing seizures, rather than removing it during an open-skull surgery. With more than 2 million Americans suffering from epilepsy, Comber said, the potential impact is enormous.

He and Barth shadowed Neimat through brain surgeries to understand how their device would work in practice. The surgeon said he sees applications well beyond treating epilepsy.

“The systems we have now that let us introduce probes into the brain – they deal with straight lines and are only manually guided,” Neimat said. “To have a system with a curved needle and unlimited access would make surgeries minimally invasive. We could do a dramatic surgery with nothing more than a needle stick to the cheek.”

The team — which also includes Robert Webster, associate professor of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and otolaryngology — recently submitted a National Institutes of Health R21 grant proposal for exploratory and developmental research.

Current funding comes through the Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power, a $30 million National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center that has supported advances in fluid power at Vanderbilt for more than 9 years. The Martin Companies provided previous funding for the research

The team plans to launch a startup next year to explore commercial venues for their research, Comber said.


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering