Learning the touch of acupuncture can be a shot in the dark, but a complementary medicine specialist at the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital and a group of electrical engineering students aim to remove the guesswork by creating a simulated, anatomically accurate dog for teaching purposes.
Dr. Narda Robinson, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences and the Shipley Complementary and Alternative Medicine Chair, and Peter Young, an Associate Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, are working with electrical engineering undergraduates to build "SimPooch" - a simulated Labrador retriever with a virtual reality interface that can help Dr. Robinson teach veterinary medicine students the physical feel of correctly applying acupuncture.
Dr. Robinson started the project last year with mechanical engineering students and Dr. Sue James, Director of the School of Biomedical Engineering in the College of Engineering. They built a physical model of a dog's head that attempts to reproduce the varying densities of bone, muscle, skin and fat to provide students real-life physical "force" feedback.
Now electrical engineering students are working to build computer software that will reproduce the head in a virtual reality environment and also interface with the physical model. This will inform acupuncture students - and Dr. Robinson - about the accuracy and precision of students' acupuncture point location techniques. The instruments students use for SimPooch to build 3-D virtual software involves haptic or touch technology that has been studied previously for medical simulations such as lumbar puncture, or spinal tap, techniques.
For SimPooch to be realistic, the engineering students must simulate the feel, or force feedback, of acupuncture needles hitting layers of skin, muscle and bone. Doing so required assembling a three-dimensional model of a dog based on MRI data of a real dog.
"SimPooch can be a teaching tool and a testing tool. Since the model is portable, students can learn and test it anywhere. No live dogs are needed, and students can practice their techniques over and over again without causing stress to live animals," said Dr. Robinson. "Anatomy is the basis of medicine and, as such, is the basis of acupuncture. Acupuncture works by nerve stimulation. If students are too far from the nerves they need to stimulate to promote healing, the benefits of treatment will be diminished. Teaching students how to locate points based on an anatomically accurate 3-D model will improve their palpation techniques, location skills and treatment outcomes.
SimPooch could eventually have other applications including nerve blocks for interventional pain relief and for other approaches commonly performed in radiology and oncology, Dr. Robinson said.