Our brains are amazing: they control our movements, thoughts and memories, regulate our body temperature and influence our emotions. But they’re also the source of neurological disorders, cognitive disabilities and psychological problems.

Understanding the brain is helping scientists build a clearer picture of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, but that picture has been in two dimensions – until now.

Researchers at the University of Wollongong in Australia and the University of Texas at Dallas in the US have figured out how to make more accurate models of the brain using 3D printing. Their Elsevier Atlas award-winning article was published recently in Biomaterials.

At two percent of our body weight, and made up of 100 billion nerve cells, the brain is a hugely complex organ. Scientists can study the brain using animal models, but in recent years much work has gone into seeking alternatives, with the support of organizations like the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement & Reduction of Animals in Research.

One such alternative is creating models of brains in the lab (‘Brain on a bench’) - growing brain cells in a structural material that lets scientists observe what happens in the tissue. Until now, it has only been possible to do this in two dimensions, producing sheets of cells.

Distinguished Professor Gordon Wallace (Executive Research Director for the ARC Centre for Excellence for Electromaterials Science) and his colleagues have come up with a way of creating layered 3D structures that mimic the brain more closely, using 3D printing.

The team used gellan gum to create the structures. Gellan gum is a substance made by the bacterium Sphingomonas elodea, which is often used as a gelling agent in microbiology labs. They created a bio-ink using the gellan gum, which they combined with brain cells. They found that the gellan gum helped the brain cells grow well and function as a network – much like in a real brain.

Having a 3D model will help give scientists a much more accurate image of what’s really going on in our brains, and Professor Wallace believes this will help propel research into diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

“I think the ability to study biological systems in three dimensions reveals new knowledge every day,” he said. “The brain is enormously complex and so are neurodegenerative diseases. Looking at what’s going on in 3D – in a similar structure to the real human brain – will give us a much better idea of the biology behind these diseases, and help researchers working on ways to treat them.

“The new model has potentially huge benefits, and the collaboration that went into the research has made it even more useful.

“It’s really important to build collaborative, interdisciplinary teams to address challenges like this. This paper wouldn’t have been possible without the input of clinicians, biologists, materials scientists and chemists. Bringing those sorts of teams together is critical to address these clinical challenges,” Professor Wallace concluded.

The recently published work explaining the ‘brain on a bench’ research also received the Elsevier Atlas Featured Paper Award for February 2016. This award recognises research which could significantly impact people’s lives around the world.