Compressed air could revolutionise surgical interventions for epilepsy, which until now has required invasive brain surgery on the hippocampus, accessed by drilling through the patient’s skull.

A team at Vanderbilt University have spent the past five years looking for an alternative, and have settled on reaching the brain from underneath instead, with access through the patient’s cheek.

While this is still clearly an invasive procedure, it can be done using a needle just 1.14mm across, with accuracy of better than 1.18mm, sufficient for the work needed on the individual’s brain.

It can be done using a robot inside an MRI scanner, meaning a scan can be taken each time the needle has progressed by a further millimetre, tracking its position highly accurately.

But where does compressed air come into the process? Because of the route taken through the cheek and into the brain, the needle must be able to curve along a path.

Compressed air allows the robotic platform to ‘steer’ its progress with a good degree of accuracy – and the system could be in operating theatres within a decade.

Project head Eric Barth said: “I’ve done a lot of work in my career on the control of pneumatic systems.

“We knew we had this ability to have a robot in the MRI scanner, doing something in a way that other robots could not. Then we thought, ‘What can we do that would have the highest impact?'”