Traditional CT scanners require the patient to lay down and stay perfectly still in a narrow tube within an imposing-looking machine. It's a daunting experience, and while it's workable for human patients, it's not well suited to large animals like horses. A project taking place at the University of Pennsylvania is looking to completely change how we go about performing the scans in such cases, using two robotic arms that move around the horse while it's upright and conscious.

The researchers worked together with an imaging company called 4DDI on the system, which is known as Equimagine. It involves a pair of sizeable robot arms moving around the animal in tandem, allowing for medical imagery to be captured from almost any angle, meaning that the horse doesn't have to be anaesthetized for the procedure.

The set-up can capture typical CT images, as well as three-dimensional images and high-speed radiographs, snapping up to 16,000 frames per second. During standard use, the hardware produces images that look very similar to traditional CT scans, but without the risk and inconvenience of putting the animal under general anaesthesia.

As the project continues, the researchers hope to be able to capture imagery of the horses running on a treadmill, all while correcting for the significant motion that would entail. More generally, it could allow vets to spot potentially deadly injuries before they have a chance to manifest themselves on the race track.

"One of the most important diseases of thoroughbred racehorses is that they develop certain types of stress fractures that are very difficult to diagnose and characterize," said Dean Richardson of the Penn Vet's New Bolton Center. "This technology has the potential to help diagnose those early enough that we can manage them and help prevent the horse from suffering a catastrophic breakdown on the race track."

The benefits of the technology could also be felt in human medicine, most notably with young children, who often have to undergo general anaesthesia for a CT scan, as they simply can't stay still long enough without it. A robotic system similar to that used with the horses could allow them to sit and talk to their parents while the scan takes place around them, making the whole experience more convenient and less daunting for the patient.

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