The brain is arguably the most important organ within the human body as it controls major physiological and psychological functions responsible for growth and survival. Several conditions, including cancer, stroke, infections, inflammation, congenital deformities, and Alzheimer’s disease, can impair brain function and lead to serious illnesses and disabilities. Treatments may include medications, surgery and physical therapy among other things. Researchers across the globe are spending millions of dollars to improve patient outcomes and to enhance the quality of life of individuals with brain diseases. Three-dimensional (3D) medical printing and bioprinting are playing a crucial role in identifying new treatments and facilitating the implementation of existing ones.
3D Printing Brain Helps Doctors Treat Patients
Human brain is a complex organ made up of over 100 billion neurons that form trillions of connections, known as synapses, to send and receive messages. Each neuron plays a specific role in the body, and minor errors during surgical interventions may lead to serious complications and permanent loss of bodily functions. Neurosurgeons often rely on MRI and CT scan images to understand the anatomy of the patient’s brain and the actual defect. While the images are fairly accurate, they provide limited information and tend to miss crucial aspects of the problem that may impact the surgery.
Doctors are looking at 3D printing to increase the chances of a successful outcome. Neurosurgeon Mark Proctor and plastic surgeon John Meara of Boston Children’s Hospital created a 3D model of the brain of an infant, who was born with a part of the tissue outside his skull. The physicians obtained specific measurements of the patient’s brain from scanned images and fed the data into a computer to generate the 3D model. The model helped the doctors study the patient’s abnormality in detail and practice the procedure prior to the actual intervention.
Harvard University researchers studied several MRI scans before printing a three-dimensional smooth brain of a fetus, equivalent to the one at 20 weeks of gestation. The researchers, then, coated the 3D-printed brain with a thin layer of gel to the mimic cerebral cortex and placed it in a liquid to study the formation of folds in the brain. The aim was to understand congenital brain folding abnormalities and to help improve life expectancies of babies born with such defects.
The use of 3D printing is not limited to the treatment of anatomical abnormalities. Researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh are printing stem cells and other types of cells found in brain tumors using additive printing technology to recreate tumor-like constructs for the laboratory. The multicellular models are being used to study the anatomy and the physiology of brain tumors. Researchers are also relying on them to test new drugs and therapeutics that may finally help cure for this deadly disease.
3D Printed Microchips and Prosthetics Combine for a Sense of Touch
Prosthetic arms and limbs have been in use for several decades. However, most devices were clunky and uncomfortable. Three-dimensional medical printing has helped create prosthetics that can be customized to fit the patient perfectly. Modern, robotic versions can also help the patient move the limb as required. St. Vincent’s Hospital’s Aikenhead Centre for Medical Discovery has coordinated with scientists at University of Melbourne, the University of Wollongong, and several other institutions to take prosthetic arm research to the next level by developing a 3D printed prosthetic arm with a sense of touch. The idea is to establish a direct connection between the prosthetic limb and the patient’s brain.
The researchers are relying on 3D printed muscle cells on microchips to communicate with implanted electrodes, natural tissues and cells. A prototype of this robotic arm is expected by the end of 2017. Apart from producing high quality prosthetic arms, this new technology may also help treat other serious illnesses, including epilepsy, by establishing connections between nerve cells and electrodes to translate brain signals.
Stroke and Alzheimer’s disease are one of the leading causes of death in the United States, as per American Academy of Neurology. Furthermore, 8 out of 10 diseases found in the World Health Organization’s list of three highest disability classes have a neurological origin. Three-dimensional medical printing and bioprinting are offering novel insights into brain diseases and neurological problems and are allowing scientists and physicians to find cures with a lasting impact.