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New Probes Replace Surgeons’ Sense of Touch

Laparoscopic pressure sensors make 3-D maps of tumors

4 min read
New Probes Replace Surgeons’ Sense of Touch
Did You Feel That? A wireless probe manipulated by a laparoscopic instrument should let surgeons sense tumors by touch.
Photo: John Russell/Vanderbilt University

Surgeons’ best tools for locating tumors inside the body are often their hands. But during minimally invasive surgeries—which can reduce recovery time by days—the ability to examine tissue through touch, called palpation, is lost. Instead, surgeons must manipulate the tissue with long, narrow instruments and rely on visual images from tiny cameras. But engineers in the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere have designed new tools to help restore a surgeon’s sense of touch.

The devices, dubbed palpation probes, are designed to be used laparoscopically and can detect changes in the stiffness of tissue. Tumors are harder than normal tissue, so they can be detected with a combination of pressure sensors and spatial positioning measurements. The readings are used to create a three-dimensional stiffness map that shows surgeons the margins of tumors.

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Illustration showing an astronaut performing mechanical repairs to a satellite uses two extra mechanical arms that project from a backpack.

Extra limbs, controlled by wearable electrode patches that read and interpret neural signals from the user, could have innumerable uses, such as assisting on spacewalk missions to repair satellites.

Chris Philpot

What could you do with an extra limb? Consider a surgeon performing a delicate operation, one that needs her expertise and steady hands—all three of them. As her two biological hands manipulate surgical instruments, a third robotic limb that’s attached to her torso plays a supporting role. Or picture a construction worker who is thankful for his extra robotic hand as it braces the heavy beam he’s fastening into place with his other two hands. Imagine wearing an exoskeleton that would let you handle multiple objects simultaneously, like Spiderman’s Dr. Octopus. Or contemplate the out-there music a composer could write for a pianist who has 12 fingers to spread across the keyboard.

Such scenarios may seem like science fiction, but recent progress in robotics and neuroscience makes extra robotic limbs conceivable with today’s technology. Our research groups at Imperial College London and the University of Freiburg, in Germany, together with partners in the European project NIMA, are now working to figure out whether such augmentation can be realized in practice to extend human abilities. The main questions we’re tackling involve both neuroscience and neurotechnology: Is the human brain capable of controlling additional body parts as effectively as it controls biological parts? And if so, what neural signals can be used for this control?

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