Virtual Reality Neurosurgery

SAN FRANCISCO – Most kids know all about virtual reality, which is how they play video games and watch movies. 

But now a major hospital system is putting the familiar 3D technology into the hands of its pediatric neurosurgeons to help save lives.  

Mathias Hahn has always been the type of kid his mom would never have to worry about. He makes straight A's, plays basketball and runs cross country. 

But that all changed last fall. 

"I woke up having a really bad headache," Mathias said.

It soon became clear to his mom that something more serious was happening.

"The emergency room was able to do a CAT scan and they found the bleed," said Mathias' mother, Lindsay Hahn.         

With a hemorrhage on his brain, Mathias was taken to a hospital where he began the fight for his life.  

"He was lying in his ICU bed, paralyzed on one side and literally unable to say a word," said Dr. Kurtis Auguste, pediatric neurosurgeon at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital in Oakland.

"It was super scary. I didn't know if I was going to be able to move again, maybe," Mathias said.        

When Auguste began to operate to relieve pressure, he spotted a tumor. 

"Where this was tucked underneath the edge of the bone, my visibility was limited, and it was very difficult for me to reach and see," he said.

But Auguste let technology guide him.  

A virtual reality mapping system gave him a 360-degree view of Mathias' brain constructed from CT and MRI images. It allowed Auguste to step inside Mathias' brain and see the tumor from a new vantage point. He then shared his plan and headset with Mathias and his mom.                                                         

"It was comforting to see he had this tool that allowed him to see the tumor in so many different ways and decide how he could approach it safely," Hahn said.

Which is exactly what the doctor was able to do in surgery, thanks to VR technology. 

As a result, Mathias is now healthy and cancer free. 

"I can just be a normal kid again,"  Mathias said.

The virtual reality model provides surgeons a continuous guide to the intricate and crowded space inside the brain. 

UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital in Oakland is among several institutions across the country to use the technology.