Skip to main content
Emerging therapies

Emerging therapies

Focused ultrasound shows promise for treating Parkinson’s disease

14 Jan 2021 Tami Freeman
Jeff Elias
Jeff Elias, a neurosurgeon at UVA Health, is part of a team investigating focused ultrasound treatments of Parkinson's disease. (Courtesy: UVA Health)

Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system, affects more than six million people worldwide. It is characterized by symptoms including slowness of movement, rigidity and tremor. A new study from researchers in Spain and the USA suggests that focused ultrasound could be beneficial for patients with asymmetric Parkinson’s disease, in which symptoms are much more severe on one side of the body.

Focused ultrasound is an emerging therapy that offers a minimally invasive alternative to traditional surgical approaches. It works by focusing multiple ultrasound beams onto targets deep within the body, with MRI used to monitor and guide the procedure in real time. The focused sonic energy at the target point can be used to destroy unwanted tissue or interrupt faulty brain circuits.

In a randomized, double-blinded trial, the study team – from Centro Intregral de Neurociencias and the University of Virginia Health Sciences Center (UVA Health) – evaluated the use of focused ultrasound in 40 patients with Parkinson’s disease. All had symptoms not fully controlled by medication or were ineligible for deep-brain stimulation, the main type of surgery used to treat Parkinson’s.

The researchers assigned 27 participants to receive focused ultrasound, while 13 others underwent a sham delivery procedure. The focused ultrasound was targeted onto the subthalamic nucleus in the patients’ brains, on the side opposite to their main motor signs. The subthalamic nucleus is the neurosurgical target usually used for deep-brain stimulation treatments. In this trial, focused ultrasound was used instead to create the therapeutic lesions.

The study assessed participants’ motor symptoms before and after the procedure on a scale of 1–44 (using the Movement Disorder Society–Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale motor score), with higher scores indicating greater impairment. In the group treated with focused ultrasound, the mean score for the more affected side decreased from 19.9 at baseline to 9.9 at four months. In the control group, the score changed from 18.7 to 17.1.

“This small brain region, the subthalamic nucleus, had a very strong and potent effect on parkinsonian symptoms when we targeted it with precise, focused ultrasound energy,” says Jeff Elias, a neurosurgeon at UVA Health.

Elias notes that clinical adoption of this focused ultrasound procedure will require further technology refinements to ensure reliability and safety. With this in mind, the researchers examined the safety of the new approach by assessing procedure-related complications four months after treatment. Side effects in the active-treatment group included involuntary muscle movements, muscle weakness on the treated side, and speech and gait disturbances. In most cases, these were temporary, but in six patients, some effects persisted a year later.

The team conclude that these results warrant additional larger studies conducted over longer periods of time.

The study findings are published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Copyright © 2022 by IOP Publishing Ltd and individual contributors
bright-rec iop pub iop-science physcis connect