By Erene Stergiopoulos
In the mid-1980s, Ronald Reagan sparked a media storm with his now-infamous Strategic Defense Initiative. It was a multi-billion dollar defense program, coined “Star Wars” by the media, because it proposed the future of America’s anti-missile defense system was putting lasers in space. His vision of futuristic, earth-orbiting laser weapons rode on the promise of “surgical precision”—the laser as lightsaber against the Soviet threat.
Of course, the SDI never happened. Reagan’s ambition was ridiculed as unrealistic and unscientific. It was too much like George Lucas’s space opera to be believable.
The irony is that no one ever questioned whether or not lasers were actually “surgically precise.” As Cornell science and technology studies professor Rebecca Slayton explained in a 2011 article, weapons-grade lasers at the time were, in fact, unwieldy, and quite bad at being precise. Lasers had become a metaphor for precision, and the public imagination ran away with the idea without questioning where it came from.
But there’s actually a double irony here. When we talk about surgical precision, we also take for granted that surgery is precise. And we imagine that one of its most extolled branches—surgery of the brain—must be the most meticulous and (sorry) laser sharp.
The truth is, neurosurgery is relatively primitive compared to other areas of medicine. When surgeons cut into brain tissue, they can’t be certain of how their patient will think and behave after the operation. Each cut can be millimeters away from destroying a patient’s ability to speak, hear, move, or feel. And despite years of news articles boasting yellow fMRI blotches as evidence that your amygdala lights up when you look at photos of your dog, we still don’t know enough about the brain, nor the technological tools we need to navigate it.
And many neurosurgery roadblocks are, in fact, technological. With that in mind, I visited Cameron Piron of Toronto-based tech company Synaptive Medical. His company believes it has the answer to neurosurgery’s technological woes. Their proposed solution puts robotics and simulation in the front seat, giving neurosurgeons tools that do the grunt work for them, while accelerating their training with a simulated brain that’s as close as it gets to the real thing.
“There are very segmented, siloed technologies in neurosurgery, and that makes it very difficult for a surgeon to then integrate everything together,” explained Piron, the president and co-founder of Synaptive Medical. Imaging tools like MRI, for planning a surgery beforehand, are developed and distributed completely separately from the the optical tools doctors use to observe the surgery as it actually takes place.