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Science

How to manipulate a brain scan with 'gestures'

New Portuguese software will let surgeons manipulate brain scans without touching them in theater - soon they will select, zoom and analyze digital medical images with simple gestures.

It may be obvious - but worth pointing out, all the same.

When surgeons operate, there's one important rule they all have to follow: they have to keep their hands clean and away from anything that can transmit germs.

Portuguese neurosurgeon, Alexandre Campos, knows the rule well.

Before going into theater, Campos 'scrubs-up' like every surgeon should - carefully washing his hands and forearms. The whole process takes him about 20 minutes.

But during surgery, there's always the chance that he will have to do things that could re-contaminate his hands.

Portguese neurosurgeon Alexandre Campos, Lisbon

Neurosurgeon Alexandre Campos asked Portuguese software firm YDreams to develop the new software

While operating, Campos might have to consult a CT (computer tomography) or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans for detail on a patient's brain.

Like following a map

"The best way to explain [CT and MRI scans] is to compare them with a map that you using to go from Germany to France", says Campos. "You cannot memorize every corner, every crossroad. So, during your journey you have to always check the map to see where to go to next."

To follow that map - or scan - Campos usually uses a mouse and a keyboard on a computer.

But they are never totally germ-free.

So, to avoid scrubbing-up again, he has to ask someone else to operate the computer for him.

"It's not practical to break the sterility barrier. You ask someone in the room, if they can take a measurement for instance. But that person probably doesn't know what you want exactly. It's much easier if you can do it yourself without breaking the sterility barrier," the Portuguese neurosurgeon says.

So, Campos asked tech experts at YDreams to help.

YDreams is a Portuguese company that specializes on interactive technology.

Together, they have developed new software called YScope. It allows doctors to consult and manipulate images that are necessary for surgery without touching any devices – all they have to do is move their hands in the air.

When it is in action, YScope looks a lot like the film "Minority Report" in which the actor Tom Cruise twists and waves his hands when viewing so-called "pre-crime" images on a screen in front of him.

YDreams started developing the software ten months ago. It is shaping up to be a real world version of our sci-fi dreams.

DICOM files displayed in the test phase of YScope software

YScope uses medical industry standard DICOM image files, rather than JPEGs

At the YDreams headquarters close to the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, computer engineers are busy experimenting and testing new technologies. There are computers, cables and screens everywhere.

On one side of the room is a big flat screen. Below it, there's Kinect, a motion sensor usually used for video games on the Xbox.

But they're not here for gaming today - they are connected to YScope.

To zoom in, one of the software tech engineer closes his hand in the air, as if grabbing something invisible. Keeping his hand closed, he moves it down, as if scrolling the cursor while clicking.

One of a kind

Project manager, Fernando Nabais, says his team has opted for an interface solution that mimics what surgeons already do with a mouse.

"I won't lie and say this is faster than a mouse," says Nabais. "But it saves time because doctors won't have to break sterility and scrub again."

YScope project manager, Fernando Nabais

YScope project manager, Fernando Nabais

It is not the first time that Kinect technology has been used to manipulate medical images in this way. But Nabais says his is the most fully-realized application of its kind.

"If you search for 'Kinect' and 'medical image manipulation' on You Tube, for instance, you'll see 30 to 40 applications in this area. But I think those applications you see are technological demos," Nabais says.

"They're probably not even working with DICOM (Digital Imaging and Communication in Medicine) files, which are specific medical files," says Nabais, "they're probably just using a JPG of an x-ray. But that's very different from the real thing, an application that reads DICOM files, that integrates with the PACS (picture archiving and communication system) server of the hospital."

What doctors need

YScope is still in the test phase.

But Nabais says tests have been promising so far. And Neurosurgeon Alexandre Campos says there's already a lot of interest and demand.

"I've received Emails and phone calls from all over the country," he says. "A colleague of mine, a neurosurgery director, wrote an Email asking 'when can I have it?!'"

The long wait may come to an end soon.

YDreams plans to have the software on the market by the end of the year - starting with Portugal, and then the rest of the world.