A decade of imaging surgeons' brain function (part II): A systematic review of applications for technical and nontechnical skills assessment

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Functional neuroimaging technologies enable assessment of operator brain function and can deepen our understanding of skills learning, ergonomic optima, and cognitive processes in surgeons. Although there has been a critical mass of data detailing surgeons' brain function, this literature has not been reviewed systematically.


A systematic search of original neuroimaging studies assessing surgeons' brain function and published up until November 2016 was conducted using Medline, Embase, and PsycINFO databases.


Twenty-seven studies fulfilled the inclusion criteria, including 3 feasibility studies, 14 studies exploring the neural correlates of technical skill acquisition, and the remainder investigating brain function in the context of intraoperative decision-making (n = 1), neurofeedback training (n = 1), robot-assisted technology (n = 5), and surgical teaching (n = 3). Early stages of learning open surgical tasks (knot-tying) are characterized by prefrontal cortical activation, which subsequently attenuates with deliberate practice. However, with complex laparoscopic skills (intracorporeal suturing), prefrontal cortical engagement requires substantial training, and attenuation occurs over a longer time course, after years of refinement. Neurofeedback and interventions that improve neural efficiency may enhance technical performance and skills learning.


Imaging surgeons' brain function has identified neural signatures of expertise that might help inform objective assessment and selection processes. Interventions that improve neural efficiency may target skill-specific brain regions and augment surgical performance.

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