3D-Printed Transparent Skull Shows Brain Activity in Real Time

The device could provide new insight for human brain conditions.

A newly developed 3D-printed transparent skull implant for mice is now allowing researchers to watch the activity of the entire brain surface in real time.

The innovation, called the See-Shell, could provide new insight for human brain conditions such as concussions, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.

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Visualizing the cortex

"What we are trying to do is to see if we can visualize and interact with large parts of the mouse brain surface, called the cortex, over long periods of time. This will give us new information about how the human brain works," said Suhasa Kodandaramaiah, Ph.D., a co-author of the study and University of Minnesota Benjamin Mayhugh Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering in the College of Science and Engineering.

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"This technology allows us to see most of the cortex in action with unprecedented control and precision while stimulating certain parts of the brain."

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Previous studies focused on looking at small regions of the brain and trying to understand it in detail. However, the brain's parts are all related so what happens in one area affects the others.

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Using the See-Shell, researchers can examine how all parts of the brain influence each other. One of the first studies conducted with the device was seeing how mild concussions in one part of the brain pushed the brain to reorganize structurally and functionally. 

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The researchers say that mice brains are very similar to human ones and, therefore, the lessons learned from mice could be applied to human treatments.

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"These are studies we couldn't do in humans, but they are extremely important in our understanding of how the brain works so we can improve treatments for people who experience brain injuries or diseases," said Timothy J. Ebner, M.D., Ph.D., a co-author of the study and a University of Minnesota Professor and Head of the Department of Neuroscience in the Medical School.

Looking at specific neurons

To create the See-Shell, researchers digitally scanned the surface of a mouse skull and printed a see-through version of it. Then they replaced the top of the mouse skull with the 3D-printed transparent device. 

"This new device allows us to look at the brain activity at the smallest level zooming in on specific neurons while getting a big picture view of a large part of the brain surface over time," Kodandaramaiah said. 

"Developing the device and showing that it works is just the beginning of what we will be able to do to advance brain research."

The study is published in Nature Communications.

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