Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour
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You can’t hear it, but it’s there: ultrasonic neuromodulation

Date of news: 8 January 2021

Brain stimulation without using electricity or a scalpel is one of the revolutionary features of ultrasound. Sound waves with an extremely high inaudible frequency are focused on a specific point in the brain with millimetre precision. Simply by pushing the right buttons, it can help people with various brain disorders, such as epilepsy, anxiety disorder, depression and Parkinson's disease.

Ultrasound illustrationThe high-tone speaker is curved like a cupped hand. Thanks to the curve, the sound waves are directed to a central point. Like the waves in a pool when you throw a rock in it, but the other way round. At the spot where these waves collide, a kind of mechanical thrust is created that can trigger neurons.

"With this device, we can get anywhere in the brain and stimulate brain areas that are just a few millimetres across," says Dr Lennart Verhagen of the Cognitive Neuromodulation lab. "We are still doing a lot of basic research on precisely how it works and how we can optimally control these sound waves.”

Pushing brain areas

Besides perfecting the technique, research must also make it crystal clear where exactly these sound waves need to go. This requires expertise from neuroscientists, psychologists, and clinicians. Verhagen: "We want to know precisely what happens when you 'push' certain areas of the brain. To understand this, we need both theory and measurement. Intervention with these types of techniques makes the toolset complete."

Holland High Tech award

Verhagen, his colleagues and Dr Inge Volman from Innovate Ideas recently won an award from Holland High Tech for developing this technique into applicable treatment methods. This opens up promising perspectives for patients, because the ultimate goal is a portable device that can be used to intervene when necessary. It’s a bit like a pacemaker for the brain. "For example, if an epileptic seizure starts, we want to intervene in a targeted way, often deep in the brain. Or, when a tremor starts in Parkinson's patients, this device could slow it down through a rapid intervention."