Saturday, November 14, 2015

Musing: A Univ. of Saskatchewan Researcher
      Makes a World Breakthrough in Brain Science

Dean Reinke
Deans' Stroke Musing
Thursday, November 5, 2015

Cool stuff. Why couldn't we have stroke researchers come up with advances like this? A great stroke association would challenge researchers to do BHAG research (Big Hairy Audacious Goals).  3d printing of damaged stroke areas should easily be possible. With a fast enough turnaround this should immensely help surgery to fix bleeds. A Univ. of Saskatchewan Researcher Makes a World Breakthrough in Brain Science.

Sometimes even a brain surgeon has a problem he can’t solve.

Earlier this year, Dr. Ivar Mendez, head of surgery at the University of Saskatchewan, was trying to plan a complex surgery. The patient was to undergo deep brain stimulation, a procedure in which Mendez would insert electrodes into the brain to soothe overcharged neurons.

Mendez normally plans and programs this in advance using a computer — but this time, technology failed him. He wanted to weave one electrode so that it could affect two targets, but the computer couldn’t tell him how. The human brain is too complex and too irregular a structure, and computers can’t predict how the tissue would interact with his tools. “I wanted a way to really, before I did a surgery, to know exactly how this was going to reach the brain and the targets I wanted,” Mendez said.

He considered the option of 3D printing, but didn’t know if an accurate, transparent brain could actually be made. So Mendez contacted the U of S school of engineering, which had a 3D printer, and assembled a team of engineers, a radiologist, MRI technicians and neuropsychology specialists. The trick was translating the MRI data into a language the printer could understand.

It took seven months before the team was able to print a prototype, complete with the smaller nuclear structures. It was the first time a brain has been 3D-printed specifically for this purpose. The only catch was, the rubber wasn’t clear enough to see those smaller features. The new version, printed just a week and a half ago, is everything Mendez needs. “You can actually do the surgery. You can actually put the needle in the brain,” he said. Once he’s done the practice run, he can program that exact route to be used during the actual surgery.

He noted that when surgeons enter a brain, they only do so through a small hole in the skull. “You can get really lost, because you really don’t know. But when you have the model it lets you see exactly where you want to go.” The model brain is made of a synthetic rubber that matches the consistency of the real thing. It feels less jiggly than you might think a brain should feel. You can press your fingers in slightly, but it remains firm, almost like a volleyball.

To Mendez, an artist as well as a neurosurgeon, the brain is an object of beauty. He feels humbled to hold that organic complexity in his hands, he said. This is just the beginning of what the technology has to offer, Mendez said. A patient with a tumour or lesion could have their brain printed before a surgery as well, to help understand how it’s displacing other structures in the brain. “And you really would not understand it, even if you rotate a 3D image, unless you actually see that,” Mendez said.

Eventually, we’ll see the dawn of 3D-printed biological materials such as organs and cells. Even now, we can print the cartilage of an ear, he said. So, how long until we see a human-made biological brain? “Who knows? But I think biological 3D printing will probably come within the next 25 years or so, or maybe more. Last year, I wouldn’t have thought we could print this complexity of the brain, and the structures within the brain.

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