It’s not exactly rocket science, but it is brain surgery. While NASA is usually known for astronauts, rocket ships, and space exploration, the U.S. agency is also responsible for researching all science and technology that has to do with airplanes or space. This covers a broad range of topics that often overlap with other industries. The latest innovation that is being developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California is a tiny 3-D camera that can be used by doctors in operating rooms as well as robots in outer space.
NASA scientists have teamed up Dr. Hrayr Shahinian, a surgeon at the Skull Base Institute in Los Angeles, who approached JPL to create a camera small enough to be used for minimally invasive brain surgery. They have designed and built a prototype with one of the world’s smallest 3D cameras, called MARVEL, which stands for Multi Angle Rear Viewing Endoscopic tool. An endoscope is a medical device with a camera that is used to examine and sometimes perform surgery on the body’s interior organs or tissues. Endoscopes are frequently used by doctors to examine various body parts (who could forget a colonoscopy?), but they haven’t yet been used for brain surgery because it requires an extremely small and precise device.
MARVEL’s camera is just 0.2 inches (4 millimeters) in diameter. It is attached to the endoscope’s tube, which can bend to look around the brain with a 120-degree arc. To make it small enough for brain surgery, the JPL team built MARVEL with just one camera lens, whereas traditional endoscopes have dual-camera systems. To generate 3-D images, MARVEL’s camera has two apertures (spaces through which light passes), each with its own color filter. A NASA release explains, “Each filter transmits distinct wavelengths of red, green and blue light, while blocking the bands to which the other filter is sensitive. The system includes a light source that produces all six colors of light to which the filters are attuned. Images from each of the two sets are then merged to create the 3-D effect.”
Now that they have a working prototype, the team will improve the engineering to make a prototype that meets FDA requirements so it can be used in a clinical trial. When the finished device is ready for the real world, it will help surgeons see more detailed views of brain tissue, leading to faster, safer, less expensive procedures. The miniature camera would not require an open craniotomy, the procedure in which surgeons take out large parts of the skull to access the brain. This is NASA, after all, so MARVEL camera technology could also be added to small robots to explore outer space, delivering detailed 3-D views of geological features of celestial objects and planets.