Belgian neuroscientists to combine advanced technologies for safer, less invasive brain surgery

Brussels 11 July 2000The thought of brain surgery is enough to make anybody's scalp crawl. It's painful, traumatic, and highly risky. But neuroscientists are doing all they can to improve current techniques and, its seems, are now closer than ever to being rewarded for their efforts. By combining two state-of-the-art pieces of technology, a positron emission tomography (PET) scanning machine and a Gamma Knife, a team of surgeons at the Erasme Hospital in Brussels and the Institut Jules Bordet have been able to destroy brain tumours up to 3 cm wide in some 80 patients, without having to create more than a pinhole in their patients' skulls.


The combination of technologies allows the scientists to watch themselves wield the Gamma Knife in 3D and in real time, so they can pinpoint tumours in the brain with an accuracy of 0.3 mm. This is a great improvement on traditional surgery as it reduces the risk of accidental destruction of healthy brain tissue surrounding a tumour. The operation is performed under local anaesthetic and patients are discharged from hospital the following day. "The treatment ... is painless, requires no passage in intensive care and involves no hair fall", stated the Gamma Knife team. Some patients have even returned to work two days after being operated on.

Clinical trials using the combination of technologies finished last year and in January, the research team began operating on patients at the newly inaugurated Gamma Knife Centre at the Université Libre in Brussels. So far, they are the only team combining the technologies. This is partly due to costs. A Gamma Knife costs around 5 million euro while PET machines cost from 300 to 400 million euro. Along with other partners, the European Commission has been instrumental in helping the Gamma Knife Centre to refine their technique, contributing some 10 million euro to the project over the last five years.

This is not the only research on the central nervous system funded by the European Commission. Under the Fourth Framework Programme, which ran from 1994 to 1998, the European Union funded some 118 trans-national projects, involving 736 laboratories throughout Europe. Some of these projects were presented to participants at the recent 22nd congress of the Collegium Internationale NeuropsychoPharmacologicum (CINP) in Brussels.

More than 5000 attended the event, which marks the organisation's 43rd anniversary. This year, scientists reported encouraging progress in research into major neurophsychiatric disorders like schizophrenia, manic depression and mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Major technological developments in brain imaging, molecular genetics and neuro-informatics, like the use of computers to analyse images of the brain, have also been showcased.

The need for international co-operation and collaboration for research in this field was underlined at the congress. Studying the central nervous system requires a large pool of expertise, resources and finance, making much work virtually impossible to carry out at a national level. The contribution of the European Commission to research in this field recognises this and aims to encourage trans-national collaboration. Some of the projects which it has supported, are already generating encouraging results.

The "Biomorph" project, for example, has developed innovative techniques for imaging the brain by combining magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology with computed tomography (CT) scan technology. And IMGSAC, an international molecular genetic study of autism, is searching for the genes leading to the disorder.

"Understanding the brain may be the only way to solve many of the neurological problems affecting European citizens", stated Bruno Hansen, of the European Commission's Research Directorate-General, at a recent presentation of the two projects. "I think it is fair to say that these two projects would not have succeeded without the European Dimension... Following the first calls for proposals for the Quality of Life programme under the Fifth Framework Programme, the Commission continues to give priority to 29 projects in 225 laboratories around Europe, demonstrating that we are already increasing our efforts in this area", Mr. Hansen added.

Leslie Versweyveld

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