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A Brand New Method to 3D-Print Models of Your Brain - Or Anything Else

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Scientists at MIT and Harvard created a new 3D printing technology that uses dithered bitmaps to improve the quality and lower the cost of taking medical images from the computer screen to three dimensions.

Top: A 3D-printed foot model (left) and its cross section (right) clearly reveal the intricate internal architecture of the different bone types, as well as the surrounding soft tissue. Credit: Steven Keating and Ahmed Hosny/Wyss Institute at Harvard University. Bottom: A 3D-printed multi-material model of a calcified heart valve shows hard calcium deposits (white) with fine-scale gradients in mineral density that are impossible to fully capture using conventional biomedical 3D printing approaches. Credit: James Weaver and Ahmed Hosny/Wyss Institute at Harvard University

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Necessity is the mother of invention, and a few years ago Steven Keating, then a graduate student at MIT Media Lab’s Mediated Matter group, had a rather urgent problem: a baseball-sized tumor in his brain. The tumor was successfully removed through awake brain surgery in 2014, and in the process Keating and a group of collaborators at MIT, the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, and elsewhere, created a new 3D printing technology for medical models that is faster, more accurate, and cheaper than existing methods. Their research was just published in 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing and in Science Advances (and we’ve got some really neat photos from the publications below).

Mediated Matter is a research group that works on tools, technologies, and structures inspired by biology; it’s led by Neri Oxman, the prolific architect and designer who pioneered the field of material ecology (download). So Keating was well-positioned to explore his predicament in three dimensions, which he by attempting to 3D-print his CT and MRI scans. What he found was that the relationship between these medical images and the 3D printing technology wasn’t seamless: It required a lot of manual labor and wasn’t always accurate. Together with colleagues at MIT and Wyss, Keating created a new way to print using a file type called “dithered bitmaps,” in which pixels in a grayscale image are converted to either black or white. The depth of color is achieved by having a higher or lower concentration of black pixels, and because there are now only two colors the image can be printed easily and quickly using two different materials.

Unlike grayscale photographs, which require several shades of gray to convey gradients (left), halftones (common in newsprint images) can preserve grayscale intensity gradients using only a single color of ink (right). A similar approach was used for processing the image stacks for the 3D printed models described in the paper. Credit: James Weaver/Wyss Institute at Harvard University
High-throughput tissue filtering, a major feature of the approach developed by the authors of the study, can help quickly remove extraneous tissues to reveal the desired underlying structures (right) without sacrificing the resolution or intensity gradients present in the native imaging data (left and center). Credit: James Weaver and Steven Keating/Wyss Institute at Harvard University
A 3D-printed model of the protein crystal structure of Apolipoprotein A-I, a dataset containing 6,588 points for each atom and 13,392 line segments for each interatomic bond. Credit: The Mediated Matter Group / MIT Media Lab.
The 291,362 colored line segments in this 3D-printed model of a human brain represent bundles of axons that connect different regions of the brain, color-coded based on their orientation in 3D space. Cred: The Mediated Matter Group / MIT Media Lab.

The goal of creating these detailed 3D models of images is to improve medical research and diagnostics. Instead of looking at an image on a screen, doctors and patients would look at an actual 3D model; researchers can even print using materials of different properties to get a better idea of the mechanical properties of the biological sample in question. “I imagine that sometime within the next five years, the day could come when any patient that goes into a doctor’s office for a routine or non-routine CT or MRI scan will be able to get a 3D-printed model of their patient-specific data within a few days,” said James Weaver, one of the authors of the study, in a press release issued by the Wyss Institute.

In the meantime, Keating continues to monitor his own health by printing his MRI scans — and as the images above demonstrate, the new method is also applicable to making physical instantiations from imaging data of objects beyond human anatomy.

Endpoints is a science publication by Elysium Health, a consumer health company translating advances in science and technology into effective, scientifically-sound health products. All stories on this site are meant for educational purposes — to encourage scientific literacy and improve the public perception of science.
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