Medical ResearchOrthopedic Implants

3D printed transparent skulls let researchers see how the brain works

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Though the rumoured alien origins of crystal skulls may be outlandish, there’s a new set of transparent skulls that could stir up innovations within the medical field. Researchers from the University of Minnesota have created 3D printed transparent skull implants for mice that can literally give more insight into how the brain works. According to the researchers, the device could lead to discoveries about brain conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and even concussion.

The unique device, named “See-Shell,” can be implanted directly into laboratory mice and lets researchers watch the brain’s activity in real time. The brainy research was recently published in the journal Nature Communications and could lead to the development of a commercialized transparent implant product.

“What we are trying to do is to see if we can visualize and interact with large parts of the mouse brain surface, called the cortex, over long periods of time,” explained Suhasa Kodandaramaiah, Ph.D., co-author of the study and University of Minnesota Benjamin Mayhugh Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering in the College of Science and Engineering.  “This will give us new information about how the human brain works. This technology allows us to see most of the cortex in action with unprecedented control and precision while stimulating certain parts of the brain.”

3D printed Skulls in mice
(Photo: Ghanbari et. al. | University of Minnesota)

The See-Shell device is created by first capturing a digital scan of the surface of a mouse’s skull. With the digital model, a transparent skull transplant can be designed. From there, a frame of the implant is 3D printed out of PMMA and a thin, transparent PET film is bonded to it. The clear plastic skull is then transplanted to replace the top of the mouse’s skull.

In tests, the 3D printed skull implant was accepted by the mouse’s body, enabling the researchers to study the same mouse brain for several months, giving them insight into how the brain ages—something which would be challenging, if not impossible, to observe with humans.

“This new device allows us to look at the brain activity at the smallest level zooming in on specific neurons while getting a big picture view of a large part of the brain surface over time,” Kodandaramaiah added. “Developing the device and showing that it works is just the beginning of what we will be able to do to advance brain research.”

Interestingly, because mouse brains have many similarities with human brains, the 3D printed device could open up possibilities for studying degenerative brain diseases that affect humans, such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.

“These are studies we couldn’t do in humans, but they are extremely important in our understanding of how the brain works so we can improve treatments for people who experience brain injuries or diseases,” concluded Timothy J. Ebner, M.D., Ph.D., co-author of the study and a University of Minnesota Professor and Head of the Department of Neuroscience in the Medical School.

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Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault is a Montreal-based content writer and editor with five years of experience covering the additive manufacturing world. She has a particular interest in amplifying the voices of women working within the industry and is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM sector. Tess holds a master's degree in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

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