Csu Engineering Students, Vet Med Acupuncturist Working Together to Create Virtual Dog

Note to Editors: Click on the news release header to obtain photos of the SimPooch project with the news release.

Learning acupuncture without knowing anatomy can be a shot in the dark, but a Colorado State University veterinary assistant medicine professor and electrical engineering students aim to remove the guesswork by creating a simulated, anatomically accurate dog for teaching purposes.

Peter Young, associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Dr. Narda Robinson, the Shipley Complementary and Alternative Medicine chair at Colorado State’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, are working with electrical engineering undergraduates to build "SimPooch" – a simulated Labrador retriever with a virtual reality interface that can help Robinson teach veterinary medicine students the physical feel of correctly applying acupuncture.

Robinson started the project last year with mechanical engineering students and Sue James, director of the School of Biomedical Engineering in the College of Engineering. They built a physical model of a dog’s head that attempts to reproduce the varying densities of bone, muscle, skin and fat to provide students real-life physical "force" feedback.

Now electrical engineering students are working to build computer software that will reproduce the head in a virtual reality environment and also interface with the physical model. This will inform acupuncture students – and Robinson – about the accuracy and precision of students’ acupuncture point location techniques. The instruments students use for SimPooch to build 3-D virtual software involves haptic or touch technology that has been studied previously for medical simulations such as lumbar puncture, or spinal tap, techniques.

For SimPooch to be realistic, the engineering students must simulate the feel, or force feedback, of acupuncture needle hitting layers of skin, muscle and bone. Doing so required reassembling a three-dimensional model of a dog based on MRI data of a real dog.

"SimPooch can be a teaching tool and a testing tool. Since the model is portable, students can learn and test it anywhere. No live dogs are needed, and students can practice their techniques over and over again without causing stress to live animals," Robinson, an assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences, said. "Anatomy is the basis of medicine and, as such, is the basis of acupuncture. Acupuncture works by nerve stimulation. If students are too far from the nerves they need to stimulate to promote healing, the benefits of treatment will be diminished. Teaching students how to locate points based on an anatomically accurate 3D model will improve their palpation techniques, location skills and treatment outcomes.

"We need to move away from the erroneous notion that acupuncture works by stimulating invisible energy systems and recognize its anatomical basis. This model is an important advance in promoting anatomically based acupuncture."

SimPooch could eventually have other applications including nerve blocks for interventional pain relief and for other approaches commonly performed in radiology and oncology, Robinson said.

Robinson founded the complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM, service at Colorado State’s Veterinary Medical Center 10 years ago. Since then, the program at the university has grown considerably into areas of research that will upgrade the practice and promote education about science-based alternative medicine among veterinarians.

With SimPooch, engineering students have had a steep learning curve building computer software while learning anatomy and physiology as well as the science of acupuncture.

"We’re kind of working in the dark trying to build a physical model for the first time," said Ben Cordova, a computer engineering student and team leader of the project. Other students involved are Jeff Bartlett, Brendan Dahl and Eric Hall.

Challenging students is all part of the process with a capstone senior design project in the College of Engineering, said Olivera Notaros, head of senior design in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

"Senior design projects allow students to develop practical, hands-on skills that teach them how to succeed in an integrated, interdisciplinary engineering environment," Notaros said.

This year, electrical engineering students are working on 21 projects that allow them to collaborate with industry partners. Projects are enabled by private gifts of equipment, hardware and money.