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Virtual reality allows neurosurgery patients to ‘tour’ their own brains

Over the past year, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital has been pioneering a virtual reality technology that enables pediatric patients, and their parents, to “tour” their brains before surgery. Special correspondent Cat Wise reports on how this 3-D platform may help young patients with epilepsy and brain tumors reduce their fears and anxieties before surgery, and maybe even yield an "epiphany."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And speaking of science and research, our next story explores ways virtual reality can help advance medicine.

    Cat Wise reports for our Breakthroughs series on the Leading Edge.

  • Cat Wise:

    A quiet journey through a scenic woodlands, a dangerous leap between two buildings, a tour of the International Space Station, lifelike experiences made possible these days through the lenses of virtual reality headsets.

    The technology now used to battle evil was first used more than 20 years ago to help patients overcome phobias. Since then, virtual reality use in the medical field has come a long way.

  • Narrator:

    Also, V.R. allows you to practice modern surgical techniques any time, anywhere.

  • Cat Wise:

    A growing number of medical schools are using V.R. to help students practice operating room skills, to engage in realistic patient interactions, and to learn the intricacies of the human body.

    Some hospitals are now using V.R. to counsel patients about complex interventions and to help reduce stress and pain during difficult procedures.

    Here in Oakland, California, the UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital is among the first in the country to take pediatric patients and their families on a virtual reality tour of their own brain.

  • Man:

    Straight down to it. And, actually, did you want to grab it?

  • Cat Wise:

    Roughly three dozen patients, ages 6 to 18, have taken the virtual tour prior to having surgery for cancer, epilepsy and several other disorders.

    The technology, which generates a virtual model of a patient's own anatomy from C.T. and MRI scans was developed by a startup called Surgical Theater.

  • Man:

    Mom and dad see me? We're going all the way inside Jade's brain.

  • Cat Wise:

    The family's tour guide is also their neurosurgeon, Dr. Kurtis Auguste.

  • Dr. Kurtis Auguste:

    I tell people all the time, as I'm preparing for surgery scrolling through MRIs, if only I could shrink myself down to this small, and insert myself into this space, and just take a look around. And that's effectively what you can do with this technology.

  • Cat Wise:

    Dr. Auguste has been performing brain surgeries on children for more than a decade. He's often had to convey complex information using plastic brain models, 2-D images, and even paper and pen.

  • Dr. Kurtis Auguste:

    And then I have the same conversation using V.R., it's just like the clouds part, and they have this epiphany, like, oh, that's what you were talking about. It still kind of gives me goose bumps, because these kids, they just really engage with it.

  • Cat Wise:

    The virtual worlds of video games are a welcome distraction for Jake Levin, a 15-year-old from Reno, Nevada, who often has more serious matters on his mind. Jake has epilepsy. He's been having almost daily seizures, like the one in this home video, since middle school.

    Recently they have prevented him from playing his favorite sport, basketball, competitively. But Jake and his parents finally have some hope, an upcoming surgery to remove a small area of his brain causing the seizures. Before then, they were anticipating their first virtual reality experience.

  • Nathanie Clancy:

    When Dr. Auguste mentioned it to us, I just thought that was so cool. As strange as it sounds, I want to see the piece of tissue that's caused all these problems.

  • Jake Levin:

    I had one buddy who kept texting me, saying, have you flown through your brain yet, have your flown through your brain yet?

  • Cat Wise:

    That day finally arrived.

  • Dr. Kurtis Auguste:

    Hello. How are you guys doing? Nice to see you. Welcome, welcome, welcome.

  • Cat Wise:

    Dr. Auguste began the session by showing the family a rendering of Jake's head with electrodes that were implanted several weeks before to determine where his seizure activity was occurring.

  • Dr. Kurtis Auguste:

    You can see how we strategically place all these electrodes.

  • Cat Wise:

    Then it was time to go inside.

  • Dr. Kurtis Auguste:

    You guys think you want to fly for a little bit? Everybody strapped in here? Keep your arms and hands inside the ride at all times.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Cat Wise:

    After orienting the family in the new space…

  • Dr. Kurtis Auguste:

    OK, good. Now, stop for a second, mom. Look over your right shoulder.

  • Nathanie Clancy:

    Oh, yes.

  • Dr. Kurtis Auguste:

    OK, good. And then, Jake and dad, do you see mom and me? All right, good. So, here we are.

  • Cat Wise:

    Dr. Auguste led them to the trouble spot.

  • Dr. Kurtis Auguste:

    All these electrodes here, these turquoise little dots, quiet, quiet, quiet, quiet, until we get to here, until we get to electrode number three. And this is the source of your epilepsy.

  • Cat Wise:

    The red, orange, and yellow dots represent the electrical activity causing Jake's seizures.

  • Dr. Kurtis Auguste:

    The good news here is that this is very, very safe — it's actually the preferential place to be for brain surgery.

  • Cat Wise:

    While still exploring, I asked mom and dad what the experience was like.

  • Matt Levin:

    It provides a visceral experience compared to looking at 2-D models. It's just incredible. It's just amazing.

  • Nathanie Clancy:

    I was excited about it, but this was like 10 times better.

  • Cat Wise:

    As for Jake?

  • Jake Wise:

    It's so much cooler than a video game. I'm feeling much more confident than I thought I would.

  • Cat Wise:

    But virtual reality does have its skeptics.

  • Marisa Brandt:

    Right now, virtual reality has a lot of hype behind it.

  • Cat Wise:

    Michigan State University's Marisa Brandt has been studying virtual reality trends for the past decade.

  • Marisa Brandt:

    I think that there's a lot of potential benefit, but we don't want to be premature about it solving a lot of problems. If we want this to be a caring technology, we really have to make sure that it's something that's for and helps connect people, not something that's used to disengage.

  • Cat Wise:

    Dr. Auguste agrees. He's been consulting, for free, for now, with the company that designed the technology. But he says his patients are his first priority.

  • Dr. Kurtis Auguste:

    First and foremost, I'm a surgeon. I am the advocate of this child. I'm not an advocate of this technology. Those of us on the front lines, the innovators, the ones who are introducing this technology, have the most responsibility to hold on to the things that make us human beings.

    The face-to-face contact and being able to read someone's physical cues, are they comfortable, are they not, that's so important.

  • Cat Wise:

    Just days after his brain tour, Jake's surgery went smoothly. He's recovering now and hoping to be seizure-free and back on the basketball court by next season.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Cat Wise in Oakland, California.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Jake, we wish you well.

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