Publish date: 02 October 2023

UCLH and UCL researchers and engineers are using artificial intelligence (AI) to make brain surgery safer and more effective.

Mr Hani Marcus of UCLH’s National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery and the UCL Institute of Neurology appeared on BBC Breakfast to explain how it works (watch from 2:34:30).

The AI technology is being developed to highlight small tumours and critical structures in the centre of the brain – in particular the pituitary gland and surrounding blood vessels and nerves.

Identifying blood vessels around the pituitary gland is particularly important – if damaged during surgery, the patient could be put at considerable risk of serious harm.

The work is being done at the Wellcome / EPSRC Centre for Interventional and Surgical Sciences (WEISS) at UCL. It is supported by the Biomedical Research Centre at UCLH.

At the moment, the technology is being trialled in a simulated environment. But brain surgery using the AI could be possible within two years, Mr Marcus told the BBC.

The AI system has ‘watched’ more than 200 videos of brain surgery involving the pituitary gland. As a result, the system reached a level of ‘experience’ in 10 months that it would take the average surgeon 10 years to gain.

Surgeons can apply this experience to help them accurately find the boundary of the pituitary tumour in the brain.

"Surgeons like myself - even if you're very experienced - can, with the help of AI, do a better job to find that boundary than without it," Mr Marcus said.

"You could, in a few years, have an AI system that has seen more operations than any human has ever or could ever see."

It is hoped the technology will help surgeons in the tricky balance in fully and accurately operating on the part of the brain that needs to be removed – whilst leaving other structures completely untouched.

Mr Marcus said: "If you go too small with your approach, then you risk not removing enough of the tumour. If you go too large, you risk damaging these really critical structures."

Trainee Dr Nicola Newell, who also appeared on BBC Breakfast, said the system was very helpful: "It helps me orientate myself during mock surgery and helps identify what steps and what stages are coming up next."