MIT engineers have created a new thread-like robot straight out of every Science Fiction horror movie – it can slither through those narrow pathways that make up the vasculature of our brains. Yes, it sounds a little terrifying but its uses would far outweigh the uncomfortable shudders that accompany the idea.
In order to clear blood clots in the brain, doctors often have to perform an endovascular procedure which involves the surgeon inserting a thin wire through a main artery. The surgeon has to manually rotate and guide the wire through the brain vessel that hosts blood clots and, as you can imagine, the procedure is not easy to perform and the surgeons in question have to be specifically trained for this task. In addition, they are repeatedly exposed to radiation from fluoroscopy.
And yes, you guessed it: there are not nearly enough surgeons available out there who can perform the procedure.
The wires used can also damage vessel linings and generally cause unwanted friction.
So the researchers created a hydrogel-coated robotic thread that can be steered magnetically. At its core, they added a nickel-titanium alloy known as nitinol. This alloy is capable of returning to its original shape, which means that it can bend and twist as it moves through the maze-like vessels. It is coated in an inky paste embedded with magnetic particles, to aid the steering.
The magnetic covering was then coated with hydrogel, which help the thread perform a friction-free procedure. The team behind it was successful in guiding it through a silicone replica of a brain’s blood vessels without causing any damage.
“One of the challenges in surgery has been to be able to navigate through complicated blood vessels in the brain, which has a very small diameter, where commercial catheters can’t reach,” Kyujin Cho, professor of mechanical engineering at Seoul National University has said. “This research has shown potential to overcome this challenge and enable surgical procedures in the brain without open surgery.”
In the near future, the MIT team hopes that these sort of endovascular surgeries can be performed just via magnetic technologies which will allow the surgeons not only increased maneuverability but also will keep them away from the fluoroscope’s radiation.
“Existing platforms could apply magnetic field and do the fluoroscopy procedure at the same time to the patient, and the doctor could be in the other room, or even in a different city, controlling the magnetic field with a joystick,” Kim says.“Our hope is to leverage existing technologies to test our robotic thread in vivo in the next step.”