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3D-printed brain implant paves way for personalised neuromedicine

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University of Sheffield researchers have developed prototype 3D-printed implants which link brains directly to computers.

The team believes their device could be used to develop treatments for nervous system problems and to help people with paralysis. They have already used it to stimulate injured spinal cords in animal models.

The technology has been shown to also fit well on the surface of a brain, spinal cord, peripheral nerves and muscles, opening the possibility that it could be used for other neurological conditions too.

Currently, brain-computer interface development is hampered by the huge costs and long development time it takes to produce prototypes. But these Sheffield researchers have shown that 3D printing can be used to make prototype implants much faster and more cost-effectively in order to speed up research and development in the area.

The implants can be easily adapted to target specific areas or problems within the nervous system, and the researchers believe their technology could bring new medical treatments for injuries to the nervous system based on a fusion of biology and electronics.

Using the new technique, a neuroscientist can order a design, from which a computer model for printing can be built. The printer applies a palette of biocompatible, mechanically soft materials to manufacture the design. The implant can be quickly amended if changes are required, giving neuroscientists a quicker and cheaper way to test their ideas for potential treatments.

University of Sheffield Professor Ivan Minev said: “The research we have started has demonstrated how 3D printing can be harnessed to produce prototype implants at a speed and cost that hasn’t been done before, all whilst maintaining the standards needed to develop a useful device.”

“The power of 3D printing means the prototype implants can be quickly changed and reproduced again as needed to help drive forward research and innovation in neural interfaces.”

The researchers have shown that 3D-printed implants can communicate with brains and nerves. Next, they want to demonstrate how the devices are robust enough to be implanted for long periods of time. Ultimately, they want to open up the possibilities of personalised medicine to neurosurgeons.

Minev added: “Patients have different anatomies and the implant has to be adapted to this and their particular clinical need. Maybe in the future the implant will be printed directly in the operating theatre while the patient is being prepared for surgery.”

Considerable research has been dedicated to developing electronic brain implants including dissolvable ones that are reabsorbed by the body, devices that can deliver drugs straight into a patients’ head and implants to help alleviate the symptoms of seizure sufferers

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