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2023-03-31| R&D

3D Printed Brain Model Could Aid in Neurosurgery

by Nai Ye Yeat
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A research team from the University of Florida recently introduced a new 3D-printing technique using silicone to make more accurate models of blood vessels in the brain, which could help neurosurgeons to train with more realistic simulations before operation. 

The journal Science published the novel strategy on March 23.

The Urgent Need to Develop Realistic Brain Models

Neurosurgery is one of the most challenging tasks for surgeons. Damage to any single part of the brain might cause unwanted complications such as loss of function. The limitations in current training do not mimic real blood vessels well. In addition, they failed to provide realistic tactile feedback, which should be soft and vulnerable. Sometimes, important structural details and entire anatomical components are excluded; thus, previous models could not accurately reflect how each procedure would be performed. 

Realistic and personalized replicas of patient brains for pre-surgery simulations are of utmost need to reduce error in the clinical stage. 3D printing could be a powerful tool here, but the problem is the soft feel is hard to replicate as melted plastic solidifies. So, the scientists came up with the idea to print with silicone.

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Personalized Surgery to Change the Healthcare Landscape

However, printing with silicone is not an easy task itself. Liquid silicone is oil-based, while most support materials are water-based. The high interfacial tension between oil and water causes 3D-printed silicone structures to deform, even in a support medium. Previous attempts to make silicone materials that can be printed without support eventually failed as those heavy modifications also modify the properties that users care about, like how soft and stretchy the silicone is.

The team then devised a brilliant solution to develop a support material made from silicone oil. As silicone inks would be chemically similar to the silicone support material, the interfacial tension could be reduced significantly. However, the important point is they are still different enough to remain separated when put together for 3D printing. 

Although many candidate support materials were tried, the best approach ended up being a dense emulsion of silicone oil and water. This method is named additive manufacturing at ultra-low interfacial tension, or AMULIT. By implementing the AMULIT support medium, silicone at high resolution, creating features as small as 8 micrometers in diameter is possible while preserving its stretchy and durable characteristics.

The result is pleasing: the 3D-print accurate models could replicate a patient’s brain blood vessels based on a 3D scan as well as a functioning heart valve model based on average human anatomy. The silicone-based technologies shed new insights into creating personalized implants or patient-specific mimics of physiological structures, which may transform future care.  

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