“Smart Needle,” the Width of a Human Hair Set to Revolutionize Brain Surgery

The computer it’s attached to can “see” potential hazards and alert the surgeon to them.

 

With some serious conditions, brain surgery remains the only option. With a brain glioma for instance, or cancer, surgery is the go-to treatment. But the brain is a complex organ that’s difficult to navigate. As a result, there is a high risk of after effects, what are known as “late effects.” These include difficulties with balance, vision, coordination, memory, and speech, among others. More serious effects include having a stroke, bleeding or infection inside the brain, swelling, and even going into a coma.


Australian researchers recently improved on brain surgery by making it more precise, thus lowering the risk of late effects. They did so by adding a novel device to the procedure, the “smart needle.” With it, they can check for abnormalities and avoid blood vessels. This results in significantly improved outcomes for patients.

The device is basically a high-tech imaging probe attached to a biopsy needle. It employs a 200-micron wide fiber-optic camera, about the width of a human hair. The camera uses infrared light. It acts sort of like an ultrasound, but using light instead of sound waves. The “needle” is connected to the internet, part of the “internet of things.” So it sends video in real time, allowing surgeons to detect abnormalities when they encounter them and steer past. It also contains smart software, researchers said. This allows it to take a still photo, analyze it, and determine whether it contains a blood vessel or brain tissue.

The smart needle acts as a second pair of unblinking eyes, operating from inside the skull.

Researchers at the University of Western Australia and Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital collaborated on this project. Robert McLaughlin was the research leader on this study. He is the Chair of the University of Adelaide's Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics. He said, "There are about 256,000 cases of brain cancer a year and about 2.3 per cent of the time you can make a significant impact that could end in a stroke or death.” Allowing surgeons to “see” such blood vessels or evaluate anomalies more carefully, is a huge improvement.

Over the course of the six-month pilot, 12 patients slated for craniotomies—removing part of the skull to get at the brain, underwent procedures that employed the smart needle. Researchers proved that it can successfully identify previously unrecognized blood vessels, and help surgeons steer clear of them. Professor Christopher Lind led the trial. He said that the needle’s ability to guide surgery was an impressive breakthrough. "To have a tool that can see blood vessels as we proceed through the brain would revolutionize neurosurgery," he said. "It will open the way for safer surgery, allowing us to do things we've not been able to do before.”

Currently, a brain surgeon take scans prior to conducting the procedure, and uses these to navigate. But the smart needle has proven more accurate. Now, McLaughlin, Lind, and their colleagues are investigating what other areas of medicine the smart needle could make an impact in. Breast cancer is one such arena mentioned. The device will be ready for clinical trials come 2018. Should they prove successful, manufacture would take place within five years’ time.

To learn how the internet of things will change our lives in other ways, click here: 

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.