UWM-developed app helps protect patients’ brains during surgery

UWM computer science graduate student Chase Letteney designed some of the app’s more complex functions.

The work of some UWM students is literally helping make people’s lives better.

The students in UWM’s App Brewery worked with doctors at the Medical College of Wisconsin to develop an app that helps guide doctors during the delicate process of brain surgery. Incredibly, patients are awake during the surgery.

The app, called NeuroMapper, is a tablet-based tool that aids surgeons who are removing a tumor or tissue by helping them test whether they are encroaching on tissue that would impair functions if removed.

“Tumors can sometimes involve or be near important brain areas that control movement, vision and cognition, or our thinking abilities,” said David Sabsevitz, the neuropsychologist and Medical College associate professor who developed NeuroMapper with the App Brewery.

In only a few months, NeuroMapper has been tested in more than 30 Medical College surgical cases, and it’s being tested in major academic medical centers across the country.

It’s a gratifying experience for the student developers. UWM computer science graduate student Chase Letteney designed some of the app’s more complex functions, such as measuring a patient’s vocal responses and the timing of those responses. He was well underway with the assignment before he fully realized its potential impact.

“The magnitude of what we were creating didn’t really occur to me until after the doctors first tried it,” Letteney said. “I learned more about brain surgery in building this app than I ever knew before. It was an incredible experience.

The app delivers cognitive and sensory stimuli to patients and evaluates their responses. It uses a sophisticated platform in which two tablets communicate while capturing and tracking sensitive behavioral metrics in real time. Previously, doctors relied on much more basic information-gathering methods, such as talking to patients or showing them flashcards.

NeuroMapper represents a substantial improvement in patient care, Sabsevitz said. Surgeons can perform more sophisticated testing in the operating room, test many more brain functions, monitor functions with audio and video, and collect data in a standardized format.

The app is attracting a lot of attention not only for its usefulness in surgery, but also for its potential in medical research outside the operating room. Sabsevitz is in the process of forming a consortium focused on that research use.

NeuroMapper is the latest tool produced through a four-year partnership involving the App Brewery and Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin. UWM students in computer science, information studies and graphic design gain experience by developing new medical solutions using basic programming. Medical College faculty get a glimpse into what is possible with mobile applications and how they are made.

“The impact of this innovative partnership is multifaceted,” UWM Chancellor Mark Mone said. “We provide hands-on experiences to our undergraduate students. Brain tumor patients receive a new level of personalized care. And, the region benefits from the collaborative, entrepreneurial work that generates products like NeuroMapper.”

Building the latest app was the most challenging job yet for Brewery developers, said Dustin Hahn, App Brewery project manager. “As far as I know, no one has done this kind of app before,” he said. “It took nine months to construct and evaluate it.”

By comparison, he said, the average Brewery project is completed in a month.

So far, UWM’s App Brewery developers have completed 17 medical apps through their partnership with Froedtert and the Medical College. One app, used in emergency situations, quickly calculates accurate drug dosages for children. Another tracks children’s concussion symptoms to help parents and coaches assess and seek treatment earlier.