According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 15 million babies are born prematurely every year. Of these babies, one in 20 is likely to be born blind or with significant vision loss – a rise of 22% in the past decade. When a premature baby is born, hospitals rush it into an incubator to help foster its development outside of the womb. During that time, it is also vital for the baby to experience visual stimuli in order to try to develop its vision. Currently, this visual rehabilitation typically consists of visually exposing and training eye gaze using 2D and 3D pictures and objects.
Cambridge-based 3D printing service Print My Part has been working with Ramiro M. Joly-Mascheroni, a PhD student within the Cognitive Neuroscience Research Unit at City, University of London to develop and produce visual stimuli for premature infants. Print My Part has been designing and 3D printing black and white objects by using FDM technology to produce plastic slices which are later assembled in alternating-color layers to form objects like cones and spheres. The sharp contrast between the layers is an important feature for the development of the babies’ eyesight.
Print My Part’s in-house design engineer was also able to improve the design by adding tabs to the objects’ base plates so that they can be more easily held. The company also attached a mounting part that can be attached to the incubator door.
Research also shows that it is important for these babies to be exposed to human features, particularly those of their parents. Babies prefer human faces to objects, and they recognize their mothers’ voices and facial expressions even when born extremely premature. Due to immunological risks and other factors, however, it’s difficult for premature infants to have contact with their parents. Being deprived of this contact can have a negative effect on the infants’ development.
Joly-Mascheroni and Print My Part want to expand their project to create a tool that can improve parental social contact with newborns – both improving the babies’ eye gaze further and providing them with valuable social interaction. Print My Part plans to use SLA 3D printing as it deepens its involvement in the project.
Having a premature baby is frightening, as there is a long list of problems that can affect infants who do not develop to full term before they are born. These medical conditions, however, like any others, are benefiting from the development of 3D technology in the medical field. 3D printed simulators are allowing surgeons to prepare for complex surgical procedures on premature babies, and 3D mapping tools are helping medical professionals to better understand the infant brain and the potential issues that may affect it should the infant be born prematurely. Even better baby bottles for preemies have been developed using 3D printing. Every premature baby has a long and difficult road of development ahead, but 3D printing can make that road easier.
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