Electric neurostimulation could boost surgeons’ skills, Irish research finds

26 Sep 2022

Researchers at Lero’s Esports Science Research Lab testing a custom headset delivering transcranial direct current stimulation. Image: Lero

Researchers used a laparoscopic skill analyser to test the effects of neurostimulation on students performing simulated surgery.

Researchers in Ireland have found that electric neurostimulation could be beneficial for training medical students in performing certain surgical tasks.

They recruited 53 people from the population of medical students at University College Cork (UCC).

These students were invited to the Assert surgical simulation lab at UCC, where they were asked to perform simulated tasks for laparoscopic keyhole surgery under observation by researchers from Assert and Lero, the Science Foundation Ireland software research centre at University of Limerick.

Researchers found that medical students performed some surgical tasks significantly better when they wore a custom headset delivering transcranial direct current stimulation than those who wore a headset but did not receive neurostimulation while performing the training tasks.

“Establishing optimal methods to assess and enhance surgical skill benefits surgeons, who may complete tasks more efficiently and rapidly, with reduced incidence of patient follow-up,” said Prof Mark Campbell of Lero and University of Limerick.

“It also benefits patients, who experience improved clinical outcomes, as well as the healthcare system, seen through a reduction in healthcare costs.”

However, not all surgical skills were found to be improved by neurostimulation. The two tasks the students were given were a threading task and a bead transfer task.

The researchers used a laparoscopic skill analyser to assess their performance on surgical tasks at baseline, post-training and retention sessions.

The students who performed the surgical tasks under neurostimulation performed significantly better on the bead transfer task than the other group. The effect of neurostimulation on the students as they performed the threading task was not pronounced.

“Five days after the completion of training, all students improved their skill levels, but those in the stimulation group performed significantly better on the bead test while we failed to detect a significant difference in the level of improvement on the threading task,” said Lero’s Dr Adam Toth.

“Overall, those in the stimulation group performed their tasks up to 30 seconds faster.”

Dr Daniel Galvin from the Assert centre added that the students in the neurostimulation group “moved their surgical implements less and more smoothly than those in the sham group’s retention test”. This could lead to better outcomes for patients in real-life situations, he said.

The researchers noted that their findings contribute to a growing body of research investigating the effects of neurostimulation on sensory-motor performance. They also demonstrate that laparoscopic simulation training may be a beneficial method to study motor learning and the impact of neurostimulation on motor skill development.

The Lero team has already looked into the applications of neurostimulation in e-sports, before bringing their focus to surgery.

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Blathnaid O’Dea is Careers reporter at Silicon Republic