Can Ultrasound Waves Help People Quit Cocaine?

August 21, 2023
Brain with noise frequency in the background

UVA researchers are investigating whether focused ultrasound waves aimed at a part of the brain may help ease cocaine addiction. (Illustration by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

UVA Health researchers are testing whether focused sound waves can help people overcome cocaine addiction.

The scientists have launched a clinical trial to see if low-intensity focused ultrasound can help reprogram brain cells to reduce the desire for cocaine. The noninvasive approach focuses on a portion of the brain called the insula, thought to play a critical role in multiple forms of addiction.

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“This trial will inform us if focused ultrasound could change the way some patients feel about cocaine,” said principal investigator Dr. Nassima Ait-Daoud Tiouririne, director of UVA’s Center for Leading Edge Addiction Research. “What if we could reverse brain changes caused by drug use? This would change the way we treat addiction as a whole,” she said.

Researchers will use focused sound waves to gently massage cells within the insula to see if the approach causes chemical changes in the brain that reduce cocaine cravings. Prior studies have shown that the insula plays an important role in cocaine cravings and relapse.

UVA’s trial is recruiting people ages 18 or older who have been diagnosed with cocaine-use disorder and who are not trying to give up using cocaine.

Portrait of Dr. Nassima

Dr. Nassima Ait-Daoud Tiouririne, director of UVA’s Center for Leading Edge Addiction Research, said successful trials could lead to changes in addiction treatments. (Contributed photo)

The trial has received $5 million in support from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, grant 1UG3DA054789-01A1.

The cocaine trial joins an expansive list of research underway at the University of Virginia School of Medicine using focused ultrasound to treat diseases from cancer to Alzheimer’s.

Prior research by Dr. Jeff Elias and colleagues paved the way for the Food and Drug Administration to approve high-intensity focused ultrasound to treat both Parkinson’s symptoms and essential tremor, a common movement disorder.

The success of its focused ultrasound efforts prompted UVA Health last year to launch the world’s first center devoted to using focused ultrasound with immunotherapy to improve cancer care.

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Media Contact

Josh Barney

UVA Health