In the summer of 2016, a 51-year-old woman in Bern, Switzerland became the first person to successfully undergo robot-assisted cochlear implant surgery.
Cochlear implantation surgery is an extremely precise procedure. It involves feeding an electrode just 0.3 to 1 millimeter wide through a tiny, surgically drilled tunnel in the inner ear. Because the procedure is so delicate, human error can be a real problem. Of the 65,000 human-operated cochlear implant surgeries performed annually, 30-35 percent of patients suffer hearing loss in the implanted ear. Surgical robots have the potential to lower those numbers.
Researchers from the ARTORG Center for Biomedical Engineering Research at the University of Bern in Switzerland wrote about their successful, image-guided robotic cochlear implantation in the journal Science Robotics. To ensure the safety of the patient, the robot was equipped with a variety of safety measures.
The procedure begins with a computer analysis of the patient's skull, to personalize the robotic treatment and ensure proper drilling placement. There is also an optical camera that tracks the robot on a scale of 25 microns (less than the width of a human hair). During the procedure, the robot monitors facial nerves and measures the force of the drill transmitted onto the skull. The researchers said this technique had “the potential for benefit in other microsurgical domains for which there is no task-oriented robotic technology available at present.”
The patient was discharged from the hospital the day after the operation and will participate in ongoing evaluation for the next six months.