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San Diego researchers develop brain treatments by viewing the head as a concert hall

Research at the Salk Institute and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) could make it possible to treat diseases in the brain using ultrasound. The research owes a lot to studies of concert hall acoustics that help determine how ultrasound travels within the human skull.

Ultrasound has shown the potential to cure diseases like Parkinson’s and epilepsy by delivering electric current to affected cells. But focusing ultrasound on one part of the brain can cause pain and damage tissues. So scientists at UCSD have created what they call a diffuser that makes the ultrasound resonate throughout the brain.

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UCSD researcher Aditya Vasan, a PhD student in mechanical engineering, said his research team attached proteins to targeted brain cells to make them receptors of the treatment.

“We engineer cells to express these proteins and we also develop ultrasound transducers that are capable of delivering a uniform sound field into an enclosed cavity like the skull,” Vasan said.

That uniform sound field is just what you want in another enclosed cavity, a concert hall. UCSD engineering professor James Friend said the mathematical foundation of their use of ultrasound comes from studies of concert hall acoustics.

Courtesy of UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering
Mechanical engineering researcher Aditya Vasan is seen working in a lab at UC San Diego on the uses of ultrasound for diseases that affect the mind.

“My contribution here was to produce a diffuser on the sound source itself. So you have no echoes of that sound within the concert hall of the skull,” Friend said.


The treatment would be non-invasive and that’s why the diffuser needed to be placed on the source of the ultrasound.

“Because we can’t modify the inside of the skull, of course,” Friend said.

Attaching proteins to internal cells to attract ultrasound, called sonogenetics, was pioneered by Sreekanth Chalasani, a professor in molecular and neurobiology at the Salk Institute.

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Curing diseases with this approach has a ways to go. But Chalasani said research has already proven the potential of this non-invasive manipulation of cells to affect many conditions.

"In cases of epilepsy, in depression, we know that manipulating certain circuits in the brain is critical to our ability to treat those conditions," Chalasani said.

The studies of concert hall acoustics mentioned by Friend were done by the late German physicist Manfred Schroeder.

The details of the team’s ultrasound research is published in a February 2022 issue of Advanced NanoBiomed Research.