A rodent study has demonstrated the potential for transcranial focused ultrasound (tFUS) to relieve chronic pain and other symptoms.
Neuromodulation, or therapeutic stimulation of neurons with electrical energy. chemicals or potentially with acoustic waves, can amplify or dampen neuronal impulses in the brain or body to relieve symptoms such as pain or tremor.
Ultrasound is a promising non-invasive, non-surgical type of neuromodulation. It offers a temporary modulation that can be tuned for a desired effect. In this study, researchers have shown that it can be targeted at neurons with specific functions.
A team led by Bin He, PhD, professor of biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, and funded in part by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), has demonstrated the potential of a neuromodulation approach that uses low-intensity ultrasound energy, called transcranial focused ultrasound-;or tFUS. In a paper published in Nature Communications, the authors describe the use of tFUS in rodent experiments, demonstrating the non-invasive neuromodulation alternative.
Moria Bittmann, PhD, Director of the Program in Biorobotic Systems, National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, said: “Transcranial focused ultrasound is a promising approach that could be used to treat forms of chronic pain, among other applications. In conditions where symptoms include debilitating pain, externally generated impulses of ultrasound at controlled frequencies and intensity could inhibit pain signals.”
The researchers designed an assembly that included an ultrasound transducer and a multi-electrode array, which records neuronal data. During experiments with anaesthetised rodents, the researchers sent acoustic pulses into the brain cortex, targeting specific neurons, while recording change in electrophysiological signals from different neuron types.
When neurons transmit signals, whether engaging the senses or controlling movement, the firing of that signal across the synapse is termed a spike. The researchers observed two types of neurons: excitatory and inhibitory neurons.
When using tFUS to emit repeated bursts of ultrasound stimulation directly at excitatory neurons, the researchers saw an elevated impulse rate, or spike. Inhibitory neurons subjected to the same tFUS energy however did not display a significant spike rate disturbance. This showed that the ultrasound signal can be transmitted through the skull to selectively activate specific neuron sub-populations, in effect targeting neurons with different functions.
“Our research addresses an unmet need to develop non-toxic, non-addictive, non-pharmacologic therapies for human use,” said Prof He. “We hope to further develop the tFUS approach with variation in ultrasound frequencies and to pursue insights into neuronal activity so that this technology has the optimal chance for benefiting brain health.”
There are many broad applications for this research. Prof He believes non-invasive tFUS neuromodulation could be used to facilitate treatment for many people suffering from pain, depression and addiction. “If we can localise and target areas of the brain using acoustic, ultrasound energy, I believe we can potentially treat a myriad of neurological and psychiatric diseases and conditions,” Prof He said.