January 11, 2017 7:38 pm
Updated: January 12, 2017 10:37 am

Virtual reality helping U of S students and surgeons analyze the brain like never before

WATCH ABOVE: A team from the department of surgery at the University of Saskatchewan has developed one of the first virtual reality brains in Canada. Jacqueline Wilson reports.

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It seems like something out of a sci-fi movie, being able to walk inside the brain and explore. But it’s reality for Dr. Ivar Mendez’s team at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) who have developed a virtual reality (VR) brain.

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“We created this 3D brain where the surgeon can enter the brain, look at a brain tumor, can see the relationship of the brain tumor with other brain structures and potentially plan a surgical procedure,” Dr. Mendez, U of S surgery department head, said.

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The idea to develop the VR brain started six months ago after the team completed printing one of the world’s first brain models using a 3D printer.

“The 3D brain was the initiation of the virtual reality brain because the process of converting the data from the patient’s MRI to the computer language to do 3D printing was very similar to the language being translated into the render of a virtual reality environment,” Dr. Mendez explained.

Cognition and neuroscience PhD student Chelsea Ekstrand is one of 20 people on Dr. Mendez’s team. She was tasked with translating an MRI into a computer software program.

“It really involved creating all of the different structures to make it a richer experience in the virtual environment than what you’re seeing with the 3D brain,” Ekstrand said from the robotics lab at U of S.

From there, Saskatoon computer software company Sprockety developed the virtual images enabling medical students and surgeons to analyze the brain like never before.

“What we essentially did at Sprockety was we built customized virtual reality software that took the 3D mesh that Chelsea produced and enable us to see them in a virtual environment,” Sprockety CEO Bruce Cory said.

“It’s been an amazing project to be a part of. We know it’s cutting edge, we know it’s going to bring amazing benefits to both the educational side and surgical planning side when it comes to the brain,” Cory added.

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Beyond surgery, this new technology will also be a game-changer in the classroom.

“A medical student can enter the virtual reality environment and really understand the different structures within the brain, the 3D arrangement of those nuclei, and areas of the brain that are related to function,” Dr. Mendez said.

“Until you actually can piece the brain together in your mind and see how everything is structured from the inside out it’s so difficult to understand. The virtual reality just makes it so much easier to parse through the 3D structure of the brain,” Ekstrand explained.

“I truly feel that this technology is going to be a way in which all students will be learning new things,” Dr. Mendez added.

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Ekstrand is now working to study the efficiency and effectiveness of virtual learning on first- and second-year medical students.

Together, the university and Sprockety hope to improve the turnaround time for building virtual reality objects.

“The ultimate goal is to be able to turnaround a brain in a short time so that it can be used for surgical planning to improve surgery. Maybe allow surgeons to perform the surgery virtually before it’s done in real life and that to me can only mean a better surgery in the end,” Cory explained.

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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