Science & Technology

A 3D-Printed Model of Your Own Brain Could Be Coming Soon

There are perks to every job. Store employees get first dibs on the latest and greatest products, lawyers know just who to call to write up a will, and Curiosity writers get to try more online learning courses than they know what to do with. When you're a Ph.D. student at MIT, you get to 3D print your brain tumor. At least, that's what Steven Keating did — and the technology that came out of the project will soon benefit everyone.

This 3D-printed model of Steven Keating's skull and brain clearly shows his brain tumor and other fine details thanks to the new data processing method pioneered by the study's authors.

Lemons into Lemonade

In 2007, Steven Keating participated in a research study that involved an MRI brain scan. Keating is the curious type, so he asked for a copy of the scan's raw data. That data showed a slight abnormality near his brain's smell center, and he was advised to get it reevaluated in a few years. The new scan he got in 2010 didn't show a change, suggesting that the smell-center abnormality was probably benign. But in 2014, Keating started experiencing a phantom smell of vinegar for about half an hour every day. By then he was enrolled at MIT, but he remembered those brain scans and asked MIT Medical to scan him a third time. Sure enough, that abnormality had grown into a baseball-sized tumor — one that needed to be removed as soon as possible.

Keating underwent surgery within a month, and within a week, he was back on campus. But he was still curious about those scans. You see, Keating's Ph.D. research centered on 3D printing — specifically, printing 3D models of living organisms. But even though he had all the data he needed to 3D print his brain, it just didn't work right. He reached out to some of his research group's collaborators, who were themselves trying out a new way of 3D printing biological samples. They had never thought to try it on human organs, but they were game.

Extrude All About It!

It would seem like brain scans and 3D printing are a match made in heaven. Both work with a series of high-resolution "slices" of their subject — MRI and CT scans use them to peer inside the body, while 3D printers combine them to create physical models. The problem is in the level of detail. Brain scans don't discriminate, capturing so much detail that you either need to trace the object you're looking for (which is time intensive, especially when you're dealing with hundreds of "sliced" images) or an automatic "thresholding" process that turns the image black and white (which loses too much detail for a reliable 3D model).

As a solution, the team — which, by the time their article appeared in the journal 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing, had ballooned to 18 different authors — took a metaphorical page from the newspaper. They developed a method of printing brain scans in dithered bitmaps, which converts each pixel of a grayscale image into a series of black and white pixels that vary in density depending on the shade of gray they're standing in for. It's just like the way black-and-white images in newspapers use different sizes of ink dots to convey shade. This method makes it so a 3D printer can print an incredibly complex biological image using two different materials in just the right amount of detail.

That method let them create models of Keating's brain "that faithfully preserved all of the gradations of detail present in the raw MRI data down to a resolution that is on par with what the human eye can distinguish from about 9-10 inches away," according to the press release. They used the same approach to print a model of a human heart valve, along with a model of a human foot — complete with bones, tendons, muscles, and skin.

Try It at Home

The hope, of course, is that this method will soon become routine in hospitals and medical centers. "Right now, it's just too expensive for hospitals to employ a team of specialists to go in and hand-segment image data sets for 3D printing, except in extremely high-risk or high-profile cases. We're hoping to change that," says coauthor Ahmed Hosny.

But you might not have to wait. The day his paper was made public, Steven Keating tweeted about an open-source 3D slicer you can use to print your own medical data. If you've got the resources, try asking for the data from your own MRI or CT scans and get to work!

Written by Ashley Hamer June 20, 2018

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