To operate on the brain, healthcare professionals have to observe fine details on a small scale. A minuscule camera that can create 3D images from inside the brain would aid surgeons notice more tissue intricacies they are handling and lead to more rapid and safer procedures.

“With one of the world’s smallest 3-D cameras, MARVEL is designed for minimally invasive brain surgery,” said Harish Manohara, principal investigator of the project at JPL. Manohara is working in collaboration with surgeon Dr. Hrayr Shahinian at the Skull Base Institute in Los Angeles, who approached JPL to create this technology.

MARVEL’s camera is a mere 0.2 inch (4 millimeters) in diameter and about 0.6 inch (15 millimeters) long. It is attached to a bendable “neck” that can sweep left or right, looking around corners with up to a 120-degree arc. This allows for a highly maneuverable endoscope.

Operations with the small camera would not require the traditional open craniotomy, a procedure in which surgeons take out large parts of the skull. Craniotomies result in higher costs and longer stays in hospitals than surgery using an endoscope.

Stereo imaging endoscopes that employ traditional dual-camera systems are already in use for minimally invasive surgeries elsewhere in the body. But surgery on the brain requires even more miniaturization. That’s why, instead of two, MARVEL has only one camera lens.

To generate 3-D images, MARVEL’s camera has two apertures — akin to the pupil of the eye — each with its own color filter. Each filter transmits distinct wavelengths of red, green and blue light, while blocking the bands to which the other filter is sensitive. The system includes a light source that produces all six colors of light to which the filters are attuned. Images from each of the two sets are then merged to create the 3-D effect.

Now that researchers have demonstrated a laboratory prototype, the next step is a clinical prototype that meets the requirements of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The researchers will refine the engineering of the tool to make it suitable for use in real-world medical settings.

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