Minimally invasive surgery has always suffered from physicians’ inability to feel tissues at the end of an instrument. Advanced haptic technologies are promising to bridge the sensory gap, but researchers at Hiroshima University in Japan have come up with a very cheap and easy solution to transfer the sense of touch from the tip to the handle in just about any already existing minimally invasive instrument.
The technique works thanks to a piezoelectric component attached to the instrument’s handle that gently vibrates at a constant frequency. This vibration is not felt by the person using the tool, but once the distal end of it comes in contact with tissue, the surgeon receives a distinct feeling in the handle. No modification of the actual surgical tool is necessary except attaching the piezoelectric actuator, and the technique works for just about any rigid instrument.
Researchers working on the project recruited a team of volunteers who were given the task of feeling for a Styrofoam ball inside a cup full of silicone, as well identifying the different textures of sandpaper. These tests represent how a surgeon would potentially feel different tissues, maybe even identifying which are cancerous and which are not.
Interestingly, the same vibration frequency seems to be equally effective across a range of volunteers, so there’s probably no need to adjust the vibrations in order to achieve optimal tactile sensing.
The researchers hope to soon test the technology during actual surgeries to see whether it translates into the real world and whether there’s sufficient benefit from it for both the surgeon and patient.