BENGALURU: The elephant trunk, with more than 40,000 muscles, is far and away the most versatile natural appendage known to man. So it stands to reason that inventors — who are wont to take inspiration from nature — would by now have had a brainwave or two about the potential for innovation from this incredible organ. And scientists have, over the past decade or so, modelled automated arms after the elephant trunk, including for operations in industrial settings, in agriculture and even as an aid for people with disabilities. But perhaps for the first time ever, a team of researchers from International Institute of Information Technology Bangalore (IIIT-B) and National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (Nimhans) is awaiting a patent for a robot prototype — a hyperflexible bionic probe — inspired by an elephant’s trunk and developed for brain surgery. The new device will allow surgeons to perform brain surgeries via a single port — an incision to insert equipment — and with just one probe. “This will change things completely. Surgeons now require multiple ports and numerous probes to do the same job,” said Prof Madhav Rao of IIIT-B. While the robot is still a long way away from being deployed in operation theatres, its inventors say it could be the first of a series of products that revolutionise surgeries. Among other things, the robot, christened ‘Mythri’, can be manoeuvred within the body to ferret out cysts or tumours. Dr Vikas Vazhiyal of Nimhans recalled that he approached Rao and his team in 2016 with an idea for the product. “Robotics had been around for a while in medicine, but not really in neuroscience,” Vazhiyal said. “I felt there was an opportunity and we began work on the idea.” “We needed a flexible and light tool, and the first thing that came to mind was an elephant’s trunk,” he said. “The elephant’s trunk is extremely tactile. It uses it to sense things, bathe, drink water and lift heavy objects. We wanted our tool to be just as versatile, something that could sneak into deep into the brain and do the work needed.” Unlike the abdomen for instance, space is at a premium in the brain because so many vital parts are packed into a small place. “The elephant trunk was perfect in this respect,” Vazhiyal said. “Flexible robots of today are completely solid. We needed a hollow device with the equipment needed packed within.” Rao said the tool uses a pulley system based on a micromotor. “It will be the first laparoscope with the ability to make three-dimensional movements,” he said. Surgeons currently have to make at least two incisions for laparoscopic surgeries: One incision to insert the laparoscope, the other to manoeuvre it. Since Mythri can make 3D movements with more than 5° of freedom, a second incision will not be required, Rao said. “We’ve developed Mythri for neurosurgeries, but I’m confident that it could be used in other parts of the body such as the abdomen,” Vazhiyal said.