Researchers use coffee to solve a common problem encountered during ear, nose and throat surgeries

Coffee caps used to track head movements

DETROIT – Vanderbilt researchers have discovered a new way to solve a common problem during ear, nose and throat surgeries.

The researchers have found a way to use coffee grounds as a noninvasive way to track a patient's head movements during surgery. Dr. Bob Webster's morning cup of joe inspired the idea.

It works like this: a cap filled with coffee grounds is placed on a patient's head. The cap solidifies and conforms to the contours of the skull.

"So beforehand, it's just completely non-rigid. The grains are able to float, just like a liquid, kind of around the entire skull," Webster said. "What we are going to do is then hook up the vacuum to it, as the patient is sitting there, pull the vacuum. Now it's a rock hard surface and it's not going to move anywhere."

The cap holds reflective markers and an optical scanner that sets up a surgical GPS display that guides the doctor's tools.

"It holds the markers very rigidly on the head so that they can't move. You can move the head all around and those markers go just with the head," Webster said. "The skin is mobile. It doesn't stick to the skull. And so a very slight motion can throw us off. A quarter inch can be a big difference when you're operating in a really tiny area."

Early experiments show the coffee cap reduced imaging errors by up to 83 percent, compared to a headband that is normally used.

"The next step is to work with a commercial partner to make it into an FDA-approved product," Webster said.

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