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Simulation in Neurosurgery: A Review of Computer-Based Simulation Environments and Their Surgical Applications

Malone, Hani R MD1; Syed, Omar N MD1; Downes, Michael S PhD1; D'Ambrosio, Anthony L MD1; Quest, Donald O MD1; Kaiser, Michael G MD1

doi: 10.1227/NEU.0b013e3181ee46d0
Review: Editor' Choice

BACKGROUND: Computer-based surgical simulators create a no-risk virtual environment where surgeons can develop and refine skills through harmless repetition. These applications may be of particular benefit to neurosurgeons, as the vulnerability of nervous tissue limits the margin for error. The rapid progression of computer-processing capabilities in recent years has led to the development of more sophisticated and realistic neurosurgery simulators.

OBJECTIVE: To catalogue the most salient of these advances and characterize our current effort to create a spine surgery simulator.

METHODS: An extensive search of the databases Ovid-MEDLINE, PubMed, and Google Scholar was conducted. Search terms included, but were not limited to: neurosurgery combined with simulation, virtual reality, haptics, and 3-dimensional imaging.

RESULTS: A survey of the literature reveals that surgical simulators are evolving from platforms used for preoperative planning and anatomic education into programs that aim to simulate essential components of key neurosurgical procedures. This evolution is predicated upon the advancement of 3 main components of simulation: graphics/volume rendering, model behavior/tissue deformation, and haptic feedback.

CONCLUSION: The computational burden created by the integration of these complex components often limits the fluidity of real-time interactive simulators. Although haptic interfaces have become increasingly sophisticated, the production of realistic tactile sensory feedback remains a formidable and costly challenge. The rate of future progress may be contingent upon international collaboration between research groups and the establishment of common simulation platforms. Given current limitations, the most potential for growth lies in the innovative design of models that expand the procedural applications of neurosurgery simulation environments.

Author Information

1Department of Neurosurgery, Columbia University Medical Center, New York, New York

Reprint requests: Omar N. Syed, MD, Department of Neurological Surgery, Columbia University, College of Physicians & Surgeons, Neurological Institute, Room 504, 710 West 168th Street, New York, NY 10032. E-mail:

Received, January 18. 2009.

Accepted, April 19, 2010.

Copyright © by the Congress of Neurological Surgeons