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'It really levels everyone up': Mayo Clinic using augmented reality to help with brain and spine surgeries

The tech helps add a new perspective doctors hope will lead to less invasive surgeries and make it easier.

PHOENIX — For the first time in Arizona history, doctors at the Mayo Clinic used augmented reality to assist with spinal surgery.

The technology allowed surgeons to see past tissue and bone while using a minimally invasive procedure to remove a tumor.

Mayo started using the same technology for brain surgery a couple of years ago, but the tech is becoming a new tool to help surgeons.

"The space we work in is so confined. You are working in the skull. You are working in the spine. The margin for error in everything we do is so small," Dr. Miles Hudson said.

"There are a lot of little, vital, important structures: nerves, blood vessels, organs. With X-Ray, you don’t see. With small incisions, you don’t see," Dr. Maziyar Kalani said.

However, augmented reality helps provide a new perspective.

“But when you overlay the entirety of the anatomy on the patient, you can see those. So that really levels up the safety,” Kalani said.

Mayo partners with Surgical Theater to create a 3D model based on patient scans during the pre-operation phase.

Surgeons can then use augmented reality glasses or a microscope to see the model over a procedure site. This allows doctors to see through bone and tissue without cutting someone open.

“What’s fantastic about this technology is that you can see this in real-time, so you can turn it on and off as you look down at the patient's spine,” Dr. Hudson said.

The scans that create the augmented reality model are also used to create a virtual reality model for patients and physicians.

“We can show the patient this is the exact hole we plan on making. These are the things we are trying to avoid. These are the pieces of the anatomy we make sure we preserve,” said Surgical Theater XR Director Sean Copeland.

The model allows patients to understand the procedure better.

So far, Mayo said the augmented reality models have assisted in more than 150 brain surgeries. 

Dr. Kalani said they would use more augmented reality technology in the future for spinal surgeries as well.

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