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Ultrasound Boosts Brain’s Sensory Ability

January 13, 2014
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology
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Here’s a new addition to the list of weird—but good—effects that ultrasound has on the brain.

We’ve previously explored how ultrasound can make you feel good and possibly be used to influence the brains of soldiers. Now, a team led by prominent ultrasound/brain researcher William “Jamie” Tyler, PhD, has discovered that focused ultrasound directed to a particular area of the brain improves the hand’s sensory performance—but in a paradoxical way the researchers don’t fully understand.

Dr. Tyler, an assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, said it was nice to use the power of science to do good:

In neuroscience, it’s easy to disrupt things. We can distract you, make you feel numb, trick you with optical illusions. It’s easy to make things worse, but it’s hard to make them better. These findings make us believe we’re on the right path.

He was quoted in a Virginia Tech news release. On Sunday, Nature Neuroscience published the researchers’ findings online.

The brain stimulation reduced an EEG-measured median nerve signal from the hand to the brain and weakened brain waves responsible for encoding tactile stimulation. Yet the research subjects performed better in neurological sensory tests.

“We believe focused ultrasound changed the balance of ongoing excitation and inhibition processing sensory stimuli in the brain region targeted,” Dr. Tyler said, “and that this shift prevented the spatial spread of excitation in response to stimuli resulting in a functional improvement in perception.”

To us, that sounds suspiciously like “we’re not exactly sure what’s going on,” but whatever. The effect disappeared if the researchers moved the acoustic beam a centimeter in either direction.

“That means we can use ultrasound to target an area of the brain as small as the size of an M&M,” Dr. Tyler said. “this finding represents a new way of noninvasively modulating human brain activity with a better spatial resolution than anything currently available.”

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