A surgical procedure called Deep Brain Stimulation involves inserting electrodes into a patient’s brain to relieve symptoms related to conditions like Parkinson’s, tremors, extreme OCD or some varieties of chronic pain. While the procedure isn’t as dangerous as it sounds, it is quite complicated and needs to be carefully planned. Unfortunately, the brain is a remarkably complex organ, and it isn’t always easy to predict how a specific patient’s brain tissue will react when the electrodes are inserted, especially when the doctors are essentially going in blind through a very tiny hole. Even newer brain mapping software that is now regularly used for surgical pre-planning can’t always predict things that can go wrong.
It was during a surgical pre-planning session where Dr. Ivar Mendez, head of surgery at the University of Saskatchewan, hit a snag. He was planning to insert electrodes into a patient to soothe their overcharged neurons, however the brain mapping software was failing him. In order to cut down on the risk and procedure time, Dr. Mendez was attempting to weave a single electrode into his patient’s brain so it would stimulate two target areas. But the complexity and irregular structure of his patient’s brain was preventing the software from helping him map a safe and adequate surgical path.
That’s when Dr. Mendez decided to see if he could generate a computer model of the brain and 3D print it so he could see exactly where he needed to go and hit the target areas accurately. He approached the school of engineering at the University of Saskatchewan for help. Soon he had assembled an entire team of engineers, MRI technicians, neuropsychology specialists and a radiologist to help translate the MRI data. While modern imagine software is quite powerful, translating that data into a language that the 3D modelling software could understand and translate was especially difficult.
It ended up taking Dr. Mendez and his team over seven months before they were able to successfully 3D print their first prototype. While the prototype included all of the required complexity, including the small nuclear structures, the rubber-like material wasn’t clear enough to see through. After testing several more materials and printing several more iterations Dr. Mendez and his team finally found the correct process about two weeks ago and they were able to 3D print an accurate replica of a human brain that would allow him to successfully map the deep brain stimulation procedure.
“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. You can actually do the surgery. You can actually put the needle in the brain,” explained Dr. Mendez to the Star Phoenix.
The final model brain was printed with a synthetic rubber material that almost exactly simulates the consistency of real brain tissue. The final model is slightly less jiggly than you would imagine it to be, but it is still flexible and can be compressed by gently squeezing it, but firm enough to pop back into shape when released. It also is completely clear and even has the target area printed in a different color, making it easier to plan the correct surgical path.
“I’m a neurosurgeon but I’m also interested in art. To me, this was an object of beauty,” Dr. Mendez told CBC. “I envision that in the future we may be able to do procedures that are very difficult or impossible today. I feel that in the next 20, maybe 25 years, we will be able to print biological materials. We may be able to print organs.”
3D printed organ models are a relatively new tool available to surgical teams, however they have been proven to be invaluable in planning exceptionally difficult and dangerous procedures. While similar procedures have been used for other organs like the human heart, this was the very first time that a 3D printed model of the brain was printed to use for surgical pre-planning. And now that Dr. Mendez has perfected the new process, he will be printing a replica of his patient’s brain and finally planning their brain surgery.
Discuss the implications of this medical breakthrough in the 3D Printed Brain Model forum thread on 3DPB.com.