Brain activation during laparoscopic tasks in high- and low-performing medical students: a pilot fMRI study

Alaina Garbens, Bonnie A. Armstrong, Marisa Louridas, Fred Tam, Allan S. Detsky, Tom A. Schweizer, Simon J. Graham, Teodor Grantcharov

Surgical Endoscopy, First Online: 21 November 2019



Up to 20% of medical students are unable to reach competency in laparoscopic surgery. It is unknown whether these difficulties arise from heterogeneity in neurological functioning across individuals. We sought to examine the differences in neurological functioning during laparoscopic tasks between high- and low-performing medical students using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).


This prospective cohort study enrolled North American medical students who were within the top 20% and bottom 20% of laparoscopic performers from a previous study. Brain activation was recorded using fMRI while participants performed peg-pointing, intracorporeal knot tying (IKT), and the Pictorial Surface Orientation (PicSOr) test. Brain activation maps were created and areas of activation were compared between groups.


In total, 9/12 high and 9/13 low performers completed the study. High performers completed IKT faster and made more successful knot ties than low performers [standing: 23.5 (5.0) sec vs. 37.6 (18.4) sec, p = 0.03; supine: 23.2 (2.5) sec vs. 72.7 (62.8) sec, p = 0.02; number of successful ties supine, 3 ties vs. 1 tie, p = 0.01]. Low performers showed more brain activation than high performers in the peg-pointing task (q < 0.01), with no activation differences in the IKT task. There were no behavioral differences in the PiCSOr task.


This study is the first to show differences between low and high performers of laparoscopic tasks at the brain level. This pilot study has shown the feasibility of using fMRI to examine laparoscopic surgical skills. Future studies are needed for further exploration of our initial findings.