Courtesy of Joseph Howell / Vanderbilt University

Engineers at Vanderbilt University designed the coffee-filled swim cap.

July 05, 2017

Coffee is having its moment in 2017: This year researchers have discovered that it repairs damage to the liver, its one of the best beverages to drink before working out, and even helps prevent your arteries from clogging. (Well, all of that is according to a few studies, anyway.) Now, apparently coffee, or coffee grounds rather, might also help nose and throat surgery. Engineers at Vanderbilt University have developed a cap that contains six cups of coffee grounds, which they hope will improve the so-called "GPS system" surgeons use to navigate the nose and throat during surgery, according to the university. 

The coffee grounds are packed inside a silicone headpiece, similar to a swim camp, and connected to a vacuum pump that sucks the air out of the cap, smashing the grounds together, and encasing the patient’s head in a rigid layer of coffee. A scanner maps out position of the patient’s head, creating a 3-D view of the inside of the skull where the surgeon is operating.

 Courtesy of Joseph Howell / Vanderbilt University

Though surgeons sometimes use these types of 3-D images, they don’t rely on them because they tend to be inaccurate, a dangerous gamble to take when operating on someone. The problem is that the skin on a person’s forehead moves, causing the reflective markers attached to their skin, which the computer uses to map their skull, to move position, slip off or break.

While surgeons can drill the markers directly into the skull (ouch!), they’re hoping to find a simpler, less invasive way to make sure they stay in place. Enter the engineering team at Vanderbilt.

Robert Webster, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and otolaryngology, who is helping develop the coffee grounds cap, recalled some experiments done with robots in which coffee grounds were built into their hands to help them grip unfamiliar objects. The grounds easily confirmed to the shape of the object in question. The team applied the same theory to their cap.

In experiments, the coffee grounds cap reduced imaging errors by 83%, and was less likely to move than the headband normally used when a person or an object bumped into it.

“It’s a very clever way—that doesn’t involve drilling holes in patients’ skulls—to greatly improve the accuracy of the guidance system when we are operating in the middle of a person’s skull: a zone where the accuracy of the current system is inadequate,” said Paul Russell, one of the engineers on the project.

The engineers are still working on getting a patent in place for their coffee-powered device so you probably won’t see it in hospitals any time soon. Just chalk its very creation up to the amazing power of coffee, in all its forms.