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Ultrasound Technology Can Quiet Parkinson’s Symptoms

April 12, 2023

Ultrasound makes you think babies, but a new use for the technology can quiet the tremors of Parkinson’s disease and improve other motor symptoms.

Focusing high-intensity ultrasound on a specific area of a patient’s brain can interrupt the network of neurons producing uncontrolled movement and impairing motor skills. The noninvasive, outpatient procedure helped twice as many patients as a sham treatment, according to a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

In 77% of those responding to the treatment, the effects lasted about a year.

“In this latest study, the ultrasonic signals were directed at the globus pallidus portion of the brain, and resulted in improvement of both motor fluctuations and dykinesias (involuntary erratic muscle movements), in patients,” says J. Antonelle de Marcaida, MD, medical director of the Chase Family Movement Disorders Center, part of the Hartford HealthCare Ayer Neuroscience Institute.

How does this work?

Ultrasound uses high-energy sound waves to make echoes that form pictures of the tissues and organs inside the body, like a developing baby in the mother’s uterus. Using high-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU), specialists can target specific parts of the brain responsible for causing tremors and impairment of normal movement in patients with Parkinson’s disease and essential tremor, and potentially help improve their quality of life, Dr. de Marcaida says.

The ultrasound technology, she explains, sends about 1,000 beams of sound energy directly to the part of the brain where the trouble originates. When focused at such high levels, the beams effectively disrupt the abnormal activity without damaging surrounding tissue.

Are there any side effects?

Although this procedure is considered noninvasive, because it creates a lesion in the brain, it can cause such side effects as:

  • Slurred speech
  • Balance difficulties
  • Visual problems
  • Facial weakness
  • Cognitive issues
  • Headache
  • Dizziness

“Most of the adverse effects seen in the clinical trials improved and resolved after a few months,” Dr. de Marcaida says. “Overall, it is considered a safe and effective option for specific patients.”

Why is this news exciting?

The recent study expands the options available to people with Parkinson’s disease and essential tremor who struggle with abnormal movements, Dr. de Marcaida notes.

“Many of the studies were only initially performed on one side of the brain because there seemed to be a higher risk of adverse effects when done on both. While this procedure is still only FDA-approved to treat unilateral symptoms due to Parkinson disease, it can now be done for bilateral symptoms of essential tremor,” she explains.