Treating those most severely affected by epilepsy traditionally meant drilling through the skull intothe hippocampus area of the brain where the seizures originate, which is invasive, dangerous, and requires a long recovery. A team of engineers at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, wanted to find a better way. They are developing a robotic device that goes through the cheek to enter the brain from below, which avoids having to drill through the skull and is much closer to the target area.

This involved developing a shape-memory alloy needle that can be precisely steered along a curving path as well as a robotic platform that can operate within an MRI scanner’s powerful magnetic field.

The researchers have developed a working prototype with a 1.14 mm nickel-titanium needle that operates like a mechanical pencil, and concentric tubes, some of which are curved, that allow the tip to follow a curved path into the brain. Using compressed air, a robotic platform controllably steers and advances the needle segments a millimeter at a time. Since the needle is inserted in millimeter steps, the surgeon can track its position by taking successive MRI scans.

The engineers designed the system so that much of it can be made using 3D printing in order to keep the price low, and they believe that the device could be in operating rooms within the next decade.