Dübendorf - A researcher from the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa) has developed a special drill that can be used by a robot to insert a cochlear implant. The drill automatically shuts down when it moves dangerously close to facial nerves or taste buds.

Kerstin Thorwarth from the Surface Science & Coating Technologies department at Empa has provided a real helping hand to surgeons from the ARTORG Center for Biomedical Engineering Research of the University of Bern. Together with her colleague, the materials researcher has developed a special drill with a conductive tip as part of a master’s thesis and Innosuisse (the Swiss Innovation Agency) project, further details of which can be found in a press release issued by Empa.

This sensitive drill is used in tandem with a robot developed by the ARTORG Center. It drills a narrow channel measuring just 1.8 millimeters from the outer ear to the cochlea. Hearing implants are then inserted in the cochlea, which convert incoming sound waves into digital signals. In many cases, this can help those suffering from hearing impairments.

The risk of the procedure, however, is that the drilled channel runs just 0.5 millimeters between each of the facial nerves and taste buds. Up to now, doctors have stopped the drill in case of doubt and stimulated the facial nerve with an electrical tip. If the patient’s face does not twitch too much, the doctor may carefully continue drilling. This sensitive drill now performs this task itself and switches off automatically if necessary.

“The smart drill for cochlear surgery could also be used for spinal surgery”, according to project leader Stefan Weber. The Empa research team, together with experts from the ARTORG Center, will now turn its attention to securing industrial and financing partners for the project.

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