Between the years 2000 and 2012, over 200,000 United States military service members have sustained some form of traumatic brain injury, tens of thousands of them suffering from lasting brain damage. To reduce those numbers in the future, the US Army is 3D printing an artificial human skull to help them better understand, treat, and prevent skull damage in the future.
Currently researchers are unable to recreate the mechanical responses of the brain during a blast or an impact event experimentally. While they are able to use cadaveric heads – donated human craniums – for researching the effects of blasts, most donors are elderly or sick, in which case, their skulls often do not share the same mechanical properties as those of soldier in their 20’s or 30’s. In turn, the military is experimenting with advanced 3D printing methods to try and create an accurate synthetic human skull that can be used in laboratory settings that present researchers with a number of advantages. These synthetic craniumswill be much more readily available, easier to work with, and,unlike cadaveric skulls, do not require special handling or preservation methods.
“We’re creating synthetic bones to try to improve our ability to do experiments at the Army Research Lab.” Explained Dr. Thomas Plaisted, a materials engineer at the Army Research Lab. “To better our understanding of how impacts interact with the head form, and to improve our ability to evaluate protection mechanisms against blasts and against impact trauma.“
The human skull has very specific properties that cannot easily be recreated with traditional manufacturing techniques. The outer layer is an extremely firm and rigid structure, while the inside layer is quite soft and brittle. Sandwiched in between is a porous structure that holds both layers together and prevents them from interacting with each other. The ARL believes that advanced 3D printing techniques can replicate the unique curvature and geometry of the skull, and they even say that they can recreate a specific person’s skull or simply a generic testing model that would represent the average US soldier.
You can learn more about the ARL’s efforts to explore and reduce the causes and effects of traumatic brain injury in this informative video that they produced,titled“Piece of Mind”. It may be a bit long, but worth taking a look at. If you’re specifically interested in the 3D printing applications of the research, you may want to skip to the nine-minute mark.