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World's first high-resolution brain developed by 3D printer

Press releases may be edited for formatting or style | March 21, 2024 3D Printing MRI
(Vienna, 21 March 2024) In a joint project between MedUni Vienna and TU Wien, the world's first 3D-printed "brain phantom" has been developed, which is modelled on the structure of brain fibres and can be imaged using a special variant of magnetic resonance imaging (dMRI). As a scientific team led by MedUni Vienna and TU Wien has now shown in a study, these brain models can be used to advance research into neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and multiple sclerosis. The research work was published in the journal "Advanced Materials Technologies".

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a widely used diagnostic imaging technique that is primarily used to examine the brain. MRI can be used to examine the structure and function of the brain without the use of ionising radiation. In a special variant of MRI, diffusion-weighted MRI (dMRI), the direction of the nerve fibres in the brain can also be determined. However, it is very difficult to correctly determine the direction of nerve fibres at the crossing points of nerve fibre bundles, as nerve fibres with different directions overlap there. In order to further improve the process and test analysis and evaluation methods, an international team in collaboration with the Medical University of Vienna and TU Wien developed a so-called "brain phantom", which was produced using a high-resolution 3D printing process.

Tiny cube with microchannels
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Researchers from the Medical University of Vienna as MRI experts and TU Wien as 3D printing experts worked closely with colleagues from the University of Zurich and the University Medical Centre Hamburg-Eppendorf. Back in 2017, a two-photon polymerisation printer was developed at TU Wien that enables upscaled printing. In the course of this, work was also carried out on brain phantoms as a use case together with the Medical University of Vienna and the University of Zurich. The resulting patent forms the basis for the brain phantom that has now been developed and is being supervised by TU Wien's Research and Transfer Support team.

Visually, this phantom does not have much to do with a real brain. It is much smaller and has the shape of a cube. Inside it are extremely fine, water-filled microchannels the size of individual cranial nerves. The diameters of these channels are five times thinner than a human hair. In order to imitate the fine network of nerve cells in the brain, the research team led by first authors Michael Woletz (Center for Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering, MedUni Vienna) and Franziska Chalupa-Gantner (3D Printing and Biofabrication research group, TU Wien) used a rather unusual 3D printing method: two-photon polymerisation. This high-resolution method is primarily used to print microstructures in the nanometre and micrometre range - not for printing three-dimensional structures in the cubic millimetre range. In order to create phantoms of a suitable size for dMRI, the researchers at TU Wien have been working on scaling up the 3D printing process and enabling the printing of larger objects with high-resolution details. Highly scaled 3D printing provides the researchers with very good models that - when viewed under dMRI - make it possible to assign various nerve structures. Michael Woletz compares this approach to improving the diagnostic capabilities of dMRI with the way a mobile phone camera works: "We see the greatest progress in photography with mobile phone cameras not necessarily in new, better lenses, but in the software that improves the captured images. The situation is similar with dMRI: using the newly developed brain phantom, we can adjust the analysis software much more precisely and thus improve the quality of the measured data and reconstruct the neural architecture of the brain more accurately."

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