A 3D Printed Mouse Skull Implant Gives Researchers a Window to the Brain

The device improves insight into diseases and brain injuries such as concussions, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Image courtesy of University of Minnesota

Image courtesy of University of Minnesota

A transparent 3D-printed skull is giving researchers a glimpse into the brain to gain insight into diseases and brain injuries such as concussions, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have developed See-Shell, a clear skull implant for mice, which allows researchers to see the entire brain surface in real time to better understand harmful and degenerative brain conditions in humans.

Before, scientists could only study the brain in small detailed sections. With See-Shell, however, scientists are able to see a bigger picture of the brain to better understand the relationship between multiple areas in the brain, all at an unprecedented speed.

“This technology allows us to see most of the cortex in action with unprecedented control and precision while stimulating certain parts of the brain,” said Suhasa Kodandaramaiah, Ph.D., and co-author of the See-Shell study, which was published in Nature Communications.

To create See-Shell, researchers used scans from the surface of the mouse skull to develop an artificial 3D printed transparent skull. The artificial skull then surgically replaced the top of the original mouse skull, which was removed.

An early study using See-Shell examined how mild concussions in one part of the brain may impact other parts of the brain, leading to structural and functional reorganization.

In a video produced using the device, neural activity in the mouse’s brain was measured by an increase or decrease in brightness. Subtle flashes, which are periods when the entire brain suddenly becomes active, were noticed in the study. Researcher are still working to understand what these flashes of brain activity mean in relation to behavior.

The device also allowed researchers to study the same mouse brain over several months, allowing researchers to study brain-aging in a way that would typically take decades in humans.

Timothy J. Ebner, M.D., Ph.D., and co-author of the study, said that while doing this type of research on humans is not yet feasible, the research being conducted on mice could vastly improve the scientific understanding of the human brain.

“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.”

For more on additively manufactured medical implants, check out Medical 3D Printing: Where Are We Now?