Pilot helmets give surgeons new image

May 19, 1995

Surgeons of the future will wear fighter pilot-style helmets so that they can view both a patient and their radiological image at the same time, a leading radiologist has predicted. The image will be real-time, and as the surgeons move the image will also move, according to Ian Isherwood, emeritus professor at Manchester University.

Speaking at a meeting at the Royal Society in London, to highlight radiation science on the centenary of the discovery of X-rays, Professor Isherwood said that the necessary technology had already been developed by the military and just needed to be transferred into medicine.

He said that the helmet would show an image produced by nuclear magnetic radiation (NMR), which is widely used in medicine because it can produce pictures of soft tissue. NMR uses magnetism rather than X-rays to produce the image, so surgeons should be able to move about safely within its field.

This safety has been combined with a breakthrough by British physicist Sir Peter Mansfield, of Nottingham University, who has found a way of taking images every few milliseconds and making them available almost immediately, giving in effect a moving, real-time picture. This means that surgeons can operate on patients while they are in the NMR machine. There are now five NMR machines in the world with a special space built into them in which a surgeon can operate.

Now technology is being developed so that surgeons can control the depth at which the image is being taken as they move their instuments during an operation: "You then have an image of what is being seen with the naked eye," said Professor Isherwood. But the image is on a TV screen. "A further step is needed because you have to keep lifting your head in order to go from one to the other." The answer - pilot helmets - lies in technology that is common in the military, he said.

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