Nova Scotia physicist’s algorithm revolutionizes brain surgery techniques

May 15, 2015

Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia, has long been a driving force behind the Atlantic Canadian province's position at the cutting edge of research and development. Thanks to its ties with Dalhousie University's School of Health Sciences, the teaching hospital is able to simultaneously treat patients and train the next generation of health care professionals. Now, the centre is making waves in one of the most advanced and delicate fields on earth – brain surgery.

It's not rocket science… just brain surgery

Brain surgery's intimidating reputation is well-founded: One wrong move by a surgeon and the man or woman on the operating table could lose memory function or the ability to move or speak. But now, Nova Scotia physicist Tynan Stevens has developed a computer algorithm to help lower the stakes, The Chronicle Herald reported.

"When we do a functional MRI, what we get is really a movie of the brain," explained Stevens, as quoted by the media outlet. "What my algorithm does is figure out the best way to take that movie and condense it down to a single 3-D image that we can bring to the surgeon. We can show [the doctor] what part of the brain is controlling that person's hands, arms, language and speech … so it gives him a map of areas that he has to be really careful around during surgery."

brain scans

Stevens' algorithm better equips doctors to conduct brain surgery.

Essentially, Stevens' algorithm takes the manual task of studying patients' MRI footage – a painstaking process that can take hours of careful focus on behalf of technologists – and makes it more efficient and accurate. The algorithm may be causing a stir within the R&D industry in Nova Scotia, but is it worth its weight in gold in the operating room?

Haligonian neurosurgeon David Clarke says yes. Clarke, who has tested the accuracy of more than 50 pre-surgical maps generated by Stevens, observed what he described as "excellent coordination" between the algorithm's predictions and the unique sensitivities of each patient's brain that were discovered while the individual was in surgery. As a result, Clarke has developed "a lot of confidence in the technique," as quoted by the Herald.

"Up until now, much of our discussion would have been 'Perhaps there's a risk of having a language problem' or 'Perhaps there's a risk of having paralysis,' whereas now we can say with much more confidence, 'I'm not really worried about language as a problem, because we're confident that it's at a distance,'" said Clarke.

Algorithm has a bright future

Currently, the algorithm is being used to great effect at the QEII Health Sciences Centre, allowing both patients and doctors to enter into brain surgery with a better idea of what to expect. However, it has the potential to be much more far-reaching.

According to Steven Beyea, scientific lead at the QEII's Biomedical Translational Imaging Centre, the centre is working to distil the technology into a product that can be used around the country – and, indeed, the world. Not only would this prove advantageous to patients and surgeons far and wide, but it would also cement Nova Scotia's reputation as a hub of medical R&D and have a positive impact on the province's economy.

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