Brain surgery might be the oldest surgery in the world: We’ve been cutting people’s heads open for tens of thousands of years. And now, we can do brain surgery without cutting.
That’s thanks to a new machine developed by InSightec, which uses high-intensity ultrasound beams to heat up and destroy diseased brain tissue. Machinery like this had previously been used to treat some cancers, for example in the uterus and breast. But until now, the distorting effects brought about by the skull’s thickness has made it impossibly tricky to focus the beams onto the brain while also maintaining the required accuracy.
InSightec’s technology solves that by using over a thousand individually focused transducers, which broadcast the ultrasonic beams. But it’s not like shooting a laser into a person’s head–rather, the beams raise the temperature of the location being treated by about forty degrees, or just enough to kill the diseased cells. A built-in cooling system keeps the brain from cooking like an egg overheating. A Swiss study confirming the efficacy of the technique was just published this month in the Annals of Neurology. In patients with chronic pain which is usually treated by destroying parts of the thalamus, the new gadget worked without side effects and also immediately–compared to traditional techniques that take weeks to become effective.
The next step: Researchers plan on testing the device on other disorders requiring surgery, including Parkinson’s.