The world's first robot-assisted cochlear implantation

SICAS congratulates Stefan Weber and his team at the ARTORG Center, University of Bern: In a study recently published in Science Robotics, they report the first ever robot-assisted cochlear implantation.

Professor Weber and his team created a robot perfectly designed to drill a very thin tunnel into the human skull. After years of working on the robots design and creating safety mechanisms - including a pre-surgery patient skull analysis to personalize the robotic treatment plan and facial nerve monitoring to verify that the robot won't harm surrounding tissues during the surgery - the robot saw its first use on a patient last summer. Since then, the robot has assisted on three additional successful surgeries. The patients in the clinical trial are still beeing evaluated to determine how much their hearing experience has improved.

To fit a patient with a cochlear implant, surgeons have to access the middle ear by drilling a 2.5-millimeter-wide tunnel through a chunk of skull sourrounded by facial and taste nerves. Due to the difficulty of this maneuver, some 30 to 55 percent of patients actually lose some "residual hearing" - sounds they could hear despite existing problems with their ears - in the process of getting the implant.

Beyond the limits of human perception and dexterity

"Humans are operating at the limits of their skill-sets, haptically and visually," Weber says in an interview with the journal "Popular Science". "But if it's designed right, a robotic system can operate at any resolution - whether it's a millimeter you need or a tenth of a millimeter. By addressing this one crucial step of the operation, a robot could really contribute a significant change in the outcome."

Stefan Weber and his team are members of the SICAS and the former Co-Me network. During the NCCR Co-Me (2001-2013), the initial research activities for this robot had started. Now Weber's team is working on using a robot for the last step of implantation - threading an electrode into the inner ear.

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