Scientists are Using 3D Printing to Reattach Nerves

This new technology could be a really, really big deal.

Penn State on Flickr

A team of scientists has figured out a way to better heal nerve damage using an impressive piece of technology.

The device they created is a 3D-printed silicone sleeve based on 3D imaging of the nerve that needs to be reattached. They use both microgrooves on the sleeve’s inner surface and biochemical cues to help guide and support nerve regrowth.

That’s a lot of tech in a tiny device, and the implications are potentially huge. About 200,000 people a year experience nerve damage or disease, according to a news release. Nerves are notoriously difficult to repair, which is why neck injuries so often result in lifelong paralysis.

The scientists tested their device on rats. They built a 3D model of a subject rat’s sciatic nerve, which is the one that attaches the lower spine to the legs and feet. Then they built the silicone guide. After that they severed the nerve, and grafted the device to the cut ends.

It looks like this:

The rat's severed nerve has been reattached with the silicone guide.

University of Minnesota College of Science & Engineering

Sure, it looks a little gross and isn’t terribly pleasant for the rats, but it’s actually pretty cool. The animals who got the nerve guide were able to walk again in a few months.

The test, of course, will be getting it to work on humans. “Someday we hope that we could have a 3D scanner and printer right at the hospital to create custom nerve guides right on site to restore nerve function,” said University of Minnesota Mechanical Engineering Professor Michael McAlpine, the study’s lead researcher, in a statement.

Because in real life situations it obviously will not be possible to make a 3D image of the healthy nerve before it is injured, the researchers suggest that a database of nerve images could be developed, and doctors could search for the one that best fits.

If the doctor who is planning to perform a head transplant in 2017 isn’t paying attention to this, he should be.

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