Can Cognitive Ability Predict Surgery Skill?

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Surgeons are well known for their mastery of physical skill. Laparoscopic or ‘key hole’ surgery is considered one of the most difficult and technical forms of surgery, requiring extremely fine motor coordination of equipment through an incision typically no larger than 1cm wide. It takes much training, but even then there are often large differences found between the skills of one surgeon and another, as such it’s been the focus of many studies seeking to understand how mastery can be trained.

A team of Canadian medical scientists recently put NeuroTracker to the test to investigate if cognitive ability could be a determinant in laparoscopic surgery skill. After being tested on NeuroTracker, they discovered that the baselines of medical students were a significant predictor of performance on surgery simulation tests. Higher scores correlated with medical students who were both faster and more efficient with their surgical manipulations. Against other factors of video gaming experience, time spent on computers, sleep patterns, age and sex – NeuroTracker was the only significant predictor of ability.

The findings point to a fundamental relationship between a task that does not require any motor skills (visual tracking) and physical skills (surgery performance). The idea that movement skill is influenced by cognitive capacities is of great interest, mainly because these are not traditionally trained, yet are highly trainable. The study suggested NeuroTracker has the potential to improve physical skills because it can improve interrelated cognitive abilities, and highlighted attention conditioning as “an important addition to surgical training”. 

The broader aim of the experiment was to seek ways of enhancing surgeon development and performance. They cited choosing NeuroTracker based on its promising trends for the training of high level attentional skills essential for this advanced form of surgery, and because it trains those skills in a focused and time-efficient manner with objective measures. They concluded “NeuroTracker provides a cost-effective and easily administrable approach to enhance cognitive skills necessary for laparoscopic surgery”, and called for further studies to investigate if the benefits of NeuroTracker training can transfer directly to improvements in surgery skill.

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