Series | Superhuman

These doctors are performing brain surgery … using sound

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Patients stricken with “essential tremors” have their lives upended by this nerve disorder which causes uncontrollable shaking. But doctors at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center are helping these patients find relief by “burning out” the problem-causing part of the brain with a high-intensity focused ultrasound. This miracle treatment significantly reduces tremors without the potential for complications posed by more invasive brain surgery. This, along with other neurological advances, is improving the lives of people like Bonnie.

Over seven million Americans suffer from essential tremors, which is a neurological disorder that causes involuntary shaking, or tremors, in just about any body part, though it’s most common in the hands. This can make it challenging to perform even the simplest of tasks, like tying your shoelaces, drinking from a glass, or eating a bowl of cereal.

Commonly confused with Parkinson’s disease, essential tremors are not typically dangerous, though they do tend to get worse over time. This can be a source of anxiety for patients that fear the crucial loss of function of their hands as they get older. And while essential tremors are most common in people over 40, they can affect people at any age.

But a new essential tremor treatment may make essential tremors a thing of the past, and it works without even touching the patient. This approach is different from what doctors have been doing, which involves opening a patient’s skull and performing a complicated brain surgery, with all the risks you would expect from such a procedure.

Called focused ultrasound treatments, Dr. Vibhor Krishna uses sound waves to burn the cells that cause essential tremors without any cuts or incisions, or any kind of invasive actions at all. Sending a thousand different beams of ultrasound via a transducer that sits around a patient’s head, a simple MRI plays both the part of discovery and treatment by showing doctors where to focus their beams of sound, precisely cutting and removing areas of the brain that are shown to cause the tremors.

For Bonnie, a former pilot and writer and now a patient suffering from essential tremors, the loss of self-confidence due to her tremors has made her reclusive, even towards family and friends.

So, when news of an experimental and new essential tremor treatment hit the local papers, Bonnie’s family persuaded her to give it a shot.

(Find this article interesting? Check out: How to rebuild a broken brain and Jordan Riley’s Daunting Recovery)

According to Bonnie, this type of “brain surgery” for essential tremors doesn’t burn your scalp, but it can be painful. During treatment, one must remain lucid and still so that specific brain activity can be targeted while simple and controlled exercises, like drawing circles and lines, are performed.

But before they boost the ultrasounds to full power, Dr. Krishna and his team test the waters with low-power blasts that allow them to carefully monitor patient response, tremor reduction, and side effects—because even the smallest move in the wrong direction can have disastrous consequences.

After a few successful tests, doctors increase the power slowly. What they saw next is a good indication of the power of sound in new essential tumor treatments: a reduction in tremors of 40%.

For someone that has difficulty holding a glass of water or addressing an envelope, that 40% can make all the difference in the world. And according to Bonnie, all you have to do is look at her hands.

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