Latest tool for neurosurgeons: Virtual reality headsets

Virtual reality headsets are already revolutionizing the way people experience video games: put on a pair of goggles and you can travel anywhere from outerspace to the battlefield. But gamers aren't the only ones this technology can transport to new worlds, reports CBS News' Kara Finnstrom, only on "CBS This Morning."

"It's just amazing to see every little opening in the skull where a nerve goes through," said Dr. Neil Martin, chairman of University of California Los Angeles' department of neurosurgery.

At UCLA, neurosurgeons are slipping on virtual reality headsets to go inside their patients' brains.

"I'm virtually inside the skull of the patient walking around, floating around," Martin said.

He thinks this technology will have a "tremendous impact," and it will be introduced Monday at the American Association of Neurological Surgeons Annual Scientific Meeting.

He's developing this virtual technology with Surgical Theater CEO Moty Avisar, a former officer in the Israeli air force who designed flight simulators for F-16 fighter jets.

"We allow the pilot to fly through the scene of tomorrow's mission. And that's exactly what we're allowing a brain surgeon," Avisar said.

Avisar started out creating 3D models of the brain for computer screens by combining elements of flight simulation software with traditional brain scans.

Now, Avisar has taken that technology to the next level with a virtual reality headset. Put it on and you fly around inside the brain, moving past brain tissue, nerves and blood vessels by simply moving your head.

Brain surgeons often operate on tumors and aneurysms dangerously close to areas that control language and movement. They do it through a microscope and an incision the size of a dime. This technology would enable them to practice before the surgery, and during it, they can put the headset back on to reorient themselves.

"On the image, I can see the carotid artery going through the margin of the tumor. ... Rather than have that all of a sudden appear as I'm removing tumor, I'll know exactly when I'm going to encounter it," Martin said while demonstrating. "That is a big improvement."

An improvement he believes will ultimately benefit patients, by making surgeries shorter and more successful.

Lucas Deines is looking at a tumor recently removed from his own brain.

"It's like the convergence of gaming and lifesaving," Deines said.

Dr. Martin has used the scans of former patients to practice using the virtual technology.

"We're still waiting for flying cars, but now we have flying surgeons," Martin said.

Within weeks, he plans to be the first neurosurgeon using these virtual views to save real lives.