Virtual reality tech helps separate conjoined twins in Brazil

In just the last few years, virtual reality technology has morphed from a science-fiction pipe dream to a widely used tool in gaming, workforce training and, increasingly, healthcare.

VR headsets are already being used to conduct routine vision tests, treat conditions ranging from lazy eye to lower back pain and, perhaps most impressively, provide both preoperative training and real-time guidance for surgeons conducting complex procedures.

The lifesaving potential of that last application is now on full display, as physicians in Brazil and the U.K. reported this week the success of a VR-guided surgery to separate twins who were conjoined at the skull.

According to Gemini Untwined, the London-based charity that facilitated the procedure, the Brazilian twins Arthur and Bernardo were born craniopagus, an extremely rare condition in which twins are born with their skulls and, often, some brain tissue and blood vessels fused together.

After experts told the twins’ medical team in Rio de Janeiro that a separation surgery was impossible, they turned to Gemini Untwined and its founder, Noor Ul Owase Jeelani, M.B.B.S., who was able to work with the team at Rio’s Instituto Estadual do Cérebro Paulo Niemeyer to successfully complete the procedure.

The bicontinental team used CT and MRI scans of the twins to build VR models of the twins, then spent months using the technology to run through the surgery—which was one of the most complex separation procedures on record. It was also at risk of additional complications because, at almost four years old, Arthur and Bernardo are “the oldest craniopagus twins with a fused brain to be separated,” per Gemini Untwined.

With the VR-guided practice runs, however, the actual surgery went smoothly, the charity reported. It took a team of nearly 100 clinicians and seven separate surgeries, the last two of which comprised a total of 33 hours.

Arthur and Bernardo will now begin six months of rehabilitation at the hospital in Rio.

Following the success of the surgery, the Brazilian hospital was inducted into Gemini Untwined’s network of global partners, enabling them to treat similar cases in Latin America.

“Not only have we provided a new future for the boys and their family, we have equipped the local team with the capabilities and confidence to undertake such complex work successfully again in the future,” Jeelani said in a statement.