It revolutionized the way we watch movies, and now, it’s revolutionizing the way doctors treat illnesses. Three-dimension is the new frontier of medicine, according to physicians at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.
The new technology called CAVE, which is short for ‘Cave Automatic Virtual Environment’, is essentially a three-dimensional virtual reality room. It projects images on four walls to allow researchers to voyage inside the molecular structure of cells and parts of the human body.
This way, physicians can interact with the data and actually see the cells in their true, 3-D state, which was not possible before.
Physicians believe that using CAVE will help them better understand how to study and treat a variety of diseases located in places that they cannot physically penetrate, like the brain.
“You can see which proteins are next to each other, which proteins come together under different conditions at different times in different parts of the cell,” said Dr. Harel Weinstein, chairman of Department of Physiology and Biophysics at Weill Cornell Medical College. “You are inside the cell.”
The CAVE works by using a mathematical algorithm to rearrange normal two-dimensional MRI data segments to create a 3-D object. The result is a room where researchers can actually stand inside a representation of the anatomical structures they are studying.
“It is this idea that allows us to go to any object for which these kinds of segments are available,” Weinstein said. “We can go into cells, into organs, into the brain, and anywhere else.”
Once inside, physicians can ‘move’ through the 3-D object and peel away its layers with the use of the remote.
“It allows us to understand how certain structures interact, what might be going on in certain diseases,” said Dr. Szilard Kiss, an ophthalmologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan and Weill Cornell Medical College.
Kiss uses the CAVE technology to better understand disease processes in the eye.
“When we look at an X-ray, when we look at an MRI, we’re looking at one flat picture,” Kiss said. “It doesn’t really tell the whole story. It’s much easier to appreciate the anatomy if we go into three-dimensionality.”
Kiss likens the CAVE technology to “shrinking yourself down and going inside the eye.”
“But it’s not only going inside the eye,” he added. “It’s going inside the layers of the retina.”
In a case of one of Kiss’s patients, who had poor vision because of scar tissue growing over his retina, the CAVE technology was able to help Kiss isolate where the ridge of the scar tissue was located.
“The ridge was not obvious from two-dimensional images,” Kiss said. “When we brought it up into this three-dimensional cave is really where I had an ‘a-ha!’ moment.”
The location of the ridge was crucial because, to treat the patient’s symptoms, it was necessary to go in with very small instruments, grab the ridge and peel it off the retina.
“[He] really benefitted from the three-dimensionality that’s offered by this technology,” Kiss said.
Dr. Barry Kosofsky, Chief of the Division of Pediatric Neurology at Weill Cornell Medical College, also has high expectations for the new technology. Currently, he is studying cocaine usage during pregnancy and what effect it has on a child’s brain.
“We’re asking if the brain structure is any different now, compared with control [children] that were born in the same city at the same time, as a consequence of the mother taking drugs,” Kosofsky said.
So far, results of the study show that cocaine might be affecting a particular section of the child’s brain that is involved in motor control, reward and euphoria.
The CAVE helped Kosofsky’s research by allowing him to virtually explore different parts of the brain to see exactly which structures had been changed in comparison to the control group of children.
“What this technology lets us do is get a better sense of how those brains are structurally different,” Kosofsky said.
With this research, Kosofsky hopes that physicians will be able to identify children who have had significant enough exposure that they are at risk for addiction themselves. This would allow physicians to intervene selectively and try to help those children.
On a larger scale, the CAVE technology is “essentially a powerful research tool for all areas of medicine,” according to Weinstein.
“It not only applies to anatomical pictures,” he said, “but organs, physiology of cells and genes. So we can go inside any of those structures and begin to reconstruct something that can be applied to a laboratory setting, and then hopefully to a clinical setting for patient care.”