The researchers targeted the thalamus with low-intensity focused ultrasound pulsation. Image: Courtesy of Dr. Martin Monti
A 25-year-old man recovering from a coma has made remarkable progress following a treatment at UCLA to jump-start his brain using ultrasound. The technique uses sonic stimulation to excite the neurons in the thalamus, an egg-shaped structure that serves as the brain’s central hub for processing information.
“It’s almost as if we were jump-starting the neurons back into function,” says Martin Monti, PhD, associate professor of psychology and neurosurgery. “Until now, the only way to achieve this was a surgical procedure known as deep-brain stimulation, in which electrodes are implanted directly inside the thalamus.”
This is the first time the approach has been used to treat severe brain injury. Dr. Monti says the researchers expected the positive result, but he cautions that the procedure requires further study before they determine if it could be used consistently to help others recovering from comas.
The technique, called low-intensity focused ultrasound pulsation, was pioneered by Alexander Bystritsky, MD (FEL ’87), professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences. The device used in the study is about the size of a coffee-cup saucer and creates a small sphere of acoustic energy that can be aimed at different regions of the brain to excite brain tissue. Researchers placed the device by the side of the man’s head and activated it 10 times for 30 seconds each during a 10-minute period. Dr. Monti says the device is safe because it emits only a small amount of energy — less than a conventional Doppler ultrasound.
Three days after the procedure, the patient had regained full consciousness and full language comprehension, and he could reliably communicate by nodding his head “yes” or shaking his head “no.” He even made a fist-bump gesture to say goodbye to one of his doctors.
If the technology helps other people recovering from a coma, Dr. Monti says, it could eventually be used to build a portable device — perhaps incorporated into a helmet — as a low-cost way to help “wake up” patients, perhaps even those who are in a vegetative or minimally conscious state.
“Non-invasive Ultrasonic Thalamic Stimulation in Disorders of Consciousness after Severe Brain Injury: A First-in-Man Report,” Brain Stimulation, July 22, 2016