How Ultrasound Energy Could Replace the Scalpel for Parkinson’s Patients

What if there was a non-invasive option for patients who need surgery for Parkinson’s disease? Something that involved no scalpels, no incision, no opening of the skull.

A new study from UVA Health System shows how doctors could potentially replace surgery with something more precise. Their website compares the technique to using a magnifying glass to start a fire by focusing beams of light. Instead of light, they would focus sound waves which have a frequency that humans can’t hear: ultrasound energy. A patient would lie inside an MRI machine, and the doctor would target all of this energy at one specific target in the body. In the case of Parkinson’s disease, they would target the brain, erasing the small amount of tissue which causes the tremors.

Parkinson’s disease is a condition which occurs when brain neurons break down. When the neurons responsible for dopamine die, it changes brain activity in a patient. This leads to hand tremors, slow movement, worsened posture and balance, altered speech, and neuropsychiatric issues, such as dementia or hallucinations.
It’s a progressive disease, which is divided into five stages as the symptoms grow worse. Parkinson’s disease typically occurs in older patients, generally starting after age 50. Parkinson’s disease can prevent patients from being able to participate in the activities they enjoy, and everyday activities. To learn more about Parkinson’s disease, click here.

Right now, there are no available medications that cure or treat Parkinson’s disease. There are a few medicines that can help alleviate symptoms. Some patients turn to Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) surgery to help mitigate the tremors. Like any surgery, DBS comes with its own set of risks and complications. It can potentially cause bleeding, infections, or strokes.

The UVA School of Medicine worked for the Swedish Neuroscience Institute in Seattle to conduct the first pilot study of its kind. They examined 27 patients who suffered from predominantly from tremors. Of that group, 20 received the focused ultrasound treatment, while 7 received a placebo treatment. The seven that received a placebo were later given the opportunity to receive the real treatment. The whole group of patients had tremors which were not resolved by medication, and continued taking the medicine during the trial. Three months after the procedure, the treated group showed a median improvement of 62% in hand tremors. The untreated group actually showed some improvement as well, which implies that some of the result was due to a placebo effect. However, the treated group still fared significantly better, which is promising.

While these are exciting results, this is still a small study. The clinical trials would have to be repeated at other medical centers and confirmed in a larger study. The upcoming research would need to better define how this treatment works, and how to make it as effective as possible. Focused ultrasound has already received FDA approval, but is generally not covered by insurance.

Researchers also would like to see new studies covering how this technology could treat other diseases, including brain tumors and breast cancer.

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