3D-printed brains reveal Alzheimer's secrets

Issue date: 14 May 2019


The University of the West of England (UWE Bristol)'s Health Tech Hub has printed three 3D brain models that show the effects of dementia on the organ. Printed for Bristol based dementia charity BRACE, the models each have a section missing, which offers views of the inside of the organ and how the disease has depleted its density.

Using brain scans and 3D imaging provided by clinical dementia research group ReMemBr Group, which BRACE part-funds, the Health Tech Hub was able to accurately produce two Alzheimer's diseased brain models and a healthy brain model exactly to scale, using a 3D printer. Each brain took 72 hours to print and is made out of a resin material. The Health Tech Hub covered the full cost of production.

Alzheimer's disease causes progressive atrophy to the brain - a wasting away and shrinking of the brain tissue, which happens at a much faster speed than the old age-related shrinking that would be expected in a healthy brain.
The printing of these models will enable BRACE, the ReMemBr Group and the South West Dementia Brain Bank to use them as aids to teach and raise awareness of dementia.

Health Tech Hub Co-Director Professor Richard Luxton said: "These models mean you can physically see the effects of dementia and it's shocking the extent to which a brain touched by Alzheimer's wastes away. You can see that the ventricles [cavities in the organ] are bigger because of lost brain tissue and the two diseased brains are also noticeably lighter compared to the healthy one."

Dr Elizabeth Coulthard of the ReMemBr Group said: "By printing from real brain scans, we can clearly see which areas of the brain are affected by dementia diseases such as Alzheimer's disease. The areas of brain that shrink are different in different dementias.

"The memory area, called the hippocampus, shrinks early on in Alzheimer's disease. In contrast, the front of the brain shrinks first in behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia (Pick's disease)."

Dr Laura Palmer, manager of the South West Dementia Brain Bank said: "A healthy brain weighs between 1300 and 1400 grams; however, a brain with Alzheimer's will weigh between 1170 and 1260 grams. In people with end-stage Alzheimer's disease we often find that the brain can weigh as little as around 1000 grams at the time of death.'
The world-class Health Tech Hub facility at Frenchay campus is focused on advancing technology that enables people to live independently and manage their own health and well-being, thereby ensuring they spend the least possible time in hospital.

It works with health technology organisations and companies in the region, helping them with product development and prototype testing. Projects it is involved in include DNA sequencing, looking at the chemistry of biosensor surfaces, and visualising DNA from bacteria.
The Health Tech Hub is partly funded by the European Regional Development Fund and the Local Grow Fund through the Local Enterprise Partnership.

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