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Fighting tremors with focused ultrasound

University professor receives funding to treat nervous system breakdown

Earlier this month, Dr. Jeff Elias, Professor of Neurological Surgery at the University Medical Center, received approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treatment of essential tremor using focused ultrasound technology.

The Mayo Clinic website describes essential tremor as being a nervous system condition causing “involuntary and rhythmic shaking” throughout the body, especially the hands. Generally, physicians turn to medications — sometimes even anti-seizure medications and tranquilizers — but not all patients respond to such treatment.

Focused ultrasound offers a noninvasive opportunity for patients whose symptoms cannot be alleviated through medication. This technology concentrates sound waves within the brain to disturb the same pathways that cause the tremor, thereby leading to a reduction in symptoms.

Treatments around the world were already underway targeting brain tumors, but Elias concentrated his studies on patients with essential tremor.

“It turns out that this application advanced much more quickly than for brain tumors as we just received FDA approval last week to treat patients with essential tremor,” Elias said in an email statement.

Elias led an international study of 76 patients with the focused ultrasound device wherein those treated under the trial witnessed a 40 percent reduction in their tremor after a year.

This study received funding in part from the Focused Ultrasound Foundation, founded and chaired by Dr. Neal Kassell. The Foundation established the U.Va. Focused Ultrasound Center in 2009. According to Kassell, the Foundation decided to fund Elias’ study because the brain set the bar high.

“If you can achieve success in the brain, it is not difficult to imagine treating targets in less challenging organs,” Kassell said in an email statement. “Also, the results are immediate, and we are able to see right away whether the treatment was successful. A patient goes into the machine with tremors and comes out relieved of symptoms.”

Elias said that other studies are underway globally to assess the potential of this technology in the treatment of tremors associated with brain tumors, Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy. Kassell also notes that other studies have been conducted to observe focused ultrasound’s ability to relieve symptoms related to psychiatric conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) depression and Alzheimer's disease.

“Focused ultrasound is non-invasive and has fewer risks than surgery, so we hope patients will find this therapy more attractive,” Kassell said. “Many of the patients we’ve seen have struggled for years and are unable to do everyday tasks like pour a cup of coffee or button a shirt. I think for those patients, focused ultrasound offers new hope."