MIT’s snake robot is designed to crawl through blood vessels in the brain

What’s creepier than a snake robot? Answer: A snake robot that’s designed to crawl through the blood vessels in your brain. That’s exactly what researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed. But, don’t worry, it’s here to help.

The steerable, magnetically controlled threadlike robot is intended to glide through the complex vasculature of the human brain. The goal is to create a new tool that could be used by doctors to deliver clot-reducing therapies to patients who have suffered from aneurysms or strokes. Currently, this is done using a catheter which is manually threaded by a surgeon, with the help of a guidewire. Finding a way to do this more efficiently could help save lives, while also reducing the physical strain on surgeons, along with reducing their exposure to X-ray imaging tool fluoroscopy.

“Stroke is the number five cause of death and a leading cause of disability in the United States,” Xuanhe Zhao, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, said in a statement. “If acute stroke can be treated within the first 90 minutes or so, patients’ survival rates could increase significantly. If we could design a device to reverse blood vessel blockage within this ‘golden hour,’ we could potentially avoid permanent brain damage. That’s our hope.”

The research combines previous MIT work involving soft water-based hydrogen and 3D-printed materials controlled by magnetism. The soft snake-like robot has, at its center, a nickel-titanium alloy which is both bendy and springy. The wire is coated with a rubbery paste, embedded with particles to give it its magnetic properties.

The team has demonstrated how the robotic thread can be controlled using a large magnet to steer it through an obstacle course of tiny rings. This is described as being similar to guiding a thread through the eye of a needle. They have also tested in on a life-size silicone replica of the brain’s major blood vessels. This recreation of an actual brain was modeled on CT scans of an actual patient’s brain. To simulate the presence of blood, it was filled with a liquid of similar viscosity.

The project was funded in part by the Office of Naval Research, the MIT Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

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