As part of my braining imaging research I scanned myself in an MRI. It’s nice to have an image of your brain to look at on a computer screen, but wouldn’t it be amazing to have an actual model of your brain! With 3D printing becoming more accessible I decided to give it a shot!
To convert the MRI scan in DICOM format to an appropriate 3D printing format (STL) I used FreeSurfer for Linux. This is a highly technical program used for neuroanatomical studies. I don’t recommended trying to learn it if you’re not familiar with it. First, I executed the recon-all function
(which took about 18 hours of computer processing time) in order to strip the skull and
create the pial surface, then exported each hemisphere to STL format.
A friend who owns a 3D printer (an Up! Mini, thanks Daniel Hourigan), printed out the brain. This process took 8 hours per hemisphere at half scale size at the maximum resolution. Unfortunately a full scale model wouldn’t fit in the printer and would take DAYS to print. So half scale would have to do.
The result was brilliant! It is slightly strange having a hard plastic anatomically correct model of your own brain! There is something very special about holding it in your hands, far better than simply looking at it on a computer screen. I spent hours poring over the asymmetries and imperfections in my brain.
I subsequently printed two more brains, one for Dr Jerome Maller and one for Professor Susan Rossell. It was striking how different each brain was. Mine was the largest (of course), but my right hemisphere was significantly smaller than my left. Susan’s was even more asymmetrical, with a bulbous left temporal lobe (explaining her photographic memory)!
This took 36 hours per brain, plus hours of figuring out how to do it. If you have a T1 brain scan you would like printed or you have any ideas for an application of this technology feel free to contact me at
ben AT benbuchanan.com.au
So is there a useful application for this? Well, sort of. Given that I have detailed knowledge of neuroanatomy it was fascinating to see how different brain areas were big or small, and how this related to my own personality and other functions. For example, the area that controls my left hand was markedly smaller than the area that controls my right, which fully explains why my left hand is so uncoordinated! My left orbitofrontal cortex was abnormally large. This area is involved in complex decisions involving risk, which might explain why I think having many forms of insurance is a waste of money! Even more practically, such 3D prints could be helpful in surgery, where a 3D printed models produced from MRI data could help surgeons to plan and navigate difficult procedures. 3D printers already have other medical uses, like for personalised prosthetics and orthotics and even 3D printed teeth! Aside from these practical uses, I think a 3D printed brain is simply the ultimate novelty item!
It’s fair to say that there has been a great deal of hype about 3D printing. In fact some people speculate that we will all have in-home 3D printers and end up printing many household goods instead of buying them, e.g. spatulas, shoes, plastic cups, iPhone cases. I’m a bit more sceptical and presume that ordering objects online will be more convenient, cheaper and of higher quality than printing can provide.
What printing these brains demonstrate, however, is that for highly personalised and specialised products 3D printing is here to stay. Whether people will buy in-home 3D printers or will order 3D printouts of their files online is a different matter. Perhaps I can draw a parallel between conventional (2D) paper printing and 3D printing. I have a printer at home, but even though it can print photos or business cards, I order them online and have them posted to me. It’s just easier and of higher quality.
I have no doubt that some industries will thrive from developments in 3D printing. But it is no consumer revolution.