3D printing has become a cherished technology in the healthcare industry over the last several years. While it’s been used regularly to print organs and body part models as surgical aids, the technology keeps improving. In late November 2016, doctors in the United Kingdom replicated a brain to help train future physicians, and students in Japan are using them for neurosurgery classes.
The Need for a Simulated Brain
You’ve probably heard the phrase “it’s not brain surgery” from time to time referencing simple tasks in a sarcastic manner. Brain surgery is difficult, and it takes years upon years of study to master. Unfortunately, it’s very rare for a student to have a hands-on opportunity with a human brain. They often use animal brains or cadaver brains as references for study, or even to practice delicate surgeries. These are in very short supply around the world, and that’s exactly why 3D printing technology can help to revolutionize the education that future neurosurgeons receive.
The Benefits of a 3D Printed Replica
Aside from the ability to provide study aids more efficiently, there are other benefits associated with providing students 3D printed replicas. For example, existing MRI and CAT technology transfers easily into CAD programs, which allows printers to create actual replicas of brains with a variety of issues. This way, the aspiring surgeon can see exactly what they might be up against during a real surgery, and they get the opportunity to navigate the structure long before they work with a live patient. It also reduces surgery times, which can benefit the patient in a variety of ways, including lessening the risk of infection or even complications from anesthesia.
Improving the Technology
Although precise replicas of human brains are already being produced, researchers in the United Kingdom are excited to announce that they’re working on making them even more realistic. They are now testing a variety of 3D printing materials that would allow them to print a replica that feels and responds like living brain tissue, which they refer to as a “haptic” model. This would allow students to learn how it feels to use a variety of instruments on these delicate tissues and improve their surgical abilities even before they work with their first patients. This could save lives every year, and at the very least, it would improve outcomes in thousands of patients’ cases.
What the Future Holds
Simulated brains and organs have already revolutionized the way medical students around the world learn and practice, but technologies are continuing to improve at an amazing rate. It’s expected that researchers and 3D printing experts – along with physicians and surgeons – will continue to improve upon these already impressive models. In the next five years, 3D printed body parts will be even more valuable than they are today, and more students in more schools around the world will have access to them.
There is also some talk of combining a haptic brain model with living tissues in order to create an even more realistic experience, but this is likely some time off as technology has yet to allow it. Nevertheless, some of the brightest minds in the world continue to work together to find new ways to improve healthcare on a global scale using 3D printing.