Medical teams at the University of Virginia Health System are among the first in the world to conduct groundbreaking research and testing of focused ultrasound technology on certain brain disorders and tumors. The work brings into focus a futuristic reality in which doctors perform surgical procedures without cutting into the body, or one day may treat cancer without producing traditional side effects. Focused ultrasound concentrates high-intensity sound waves to generate heat, much like aiming a magnifying glass at a leaf. Guided by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the physician can target sound waves with fine accuracy to ablate, or burn away, the specific area without damaging surrounding tissue. The procedure requires no incisions, no radiation, no anesthesia and usually no hospitalization. At UVA, radiologist Dr. Alan Matsumoto first used focused ultrasound to treat noncancerous growths called uterine fibroids, a procedure approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since 2004. After the outpatient procedure, patients return to regular activities the next day.
Dr. Jeffrey Elias, a UVA neurosurgeon, first tested focused ultrasound technology on patients with essential tremor, a common movement disorder, in 2011. A “cousin to Parkinson’s disease,” as he described it, essential tremor affects 5 million to 10 million people in the U.S. and causes uncontrollable shaking of the hands and sometimes forearms, head, neck and voice. Elias and others recently completed a multicenter, international study to further assess the safety and long-term effectiveness of focused ultrasound in treating essential tremor. The FDA is considering approval of the treatment.