Dr. Gordon Shepherd, a neuroscientist at Yale University, has created the first 3D printed model of a neuron, in hopes that the piece will help illuminate the interior workings of one of the human body's most mystical structures.

The neuron, a cell which processes and transmits information through electrochemical signals, is the gateway through which all human understanding flows. Signals between neurons happen through synapses, or individual "connectors" to other cells. The core components of the nervous system, specialized types of neurons control the sense of touch, apprehension of sound and light and register a variety of stimuli which travel the spinal cord and on to the brain.

Their physical structure is maddeningly complex and resembles nothing so much as the branch structure of a leafless oak tree.

Shepherd, in collaboration with the Yale Center for Engineering Innovation and Design, built the 3D printed model to help scientists understand how these complex structures work.

Gordon Shepherd"Brain microcircuits have a very complicated 3D architecture," Shepherd said. "We've been inspecting (the model) from every angle and comparing it with experimental data. There was a bit of a stunned silence when I first pulled the model from its box and held it up for all to see."

Joseph Zinter, the Assistant Director at the CEID, says the apparently haphazard and organic geometry of a neuron makes it extremely difficult to fabricate a model of one by conventional means. Zinter said 3D printers, on the other hand, make reproducing such intricate geometries a snap.

Shepherd and the team at Yale prepared 3D digital images of a specific neuron, one taken from a mouse. The images were then used by Zinter and designer Yusuf Chauhan to convert to data which could be output by printers.

What they came up with at the end of the process, an enormously magnified but pixel-precise replica of a mouse olfactory neuron, was made of PLA and measures 4.25 inches high by five inches wide. That finished size represents a magnification thousands of times larger than the actual neuron it depicts.

"In addition to being used for the fabrication of models, prototypes, and usable parts, 3D printing allows for the visualization of information in new and exciting ways," Zinter said.

According to Shepherd, there are plans in the works to use 3D prints of entire, intricate neural networks which he believes will become an integral tool for research and teaching neurobiology.