Ultrasound relieves deep brain pain

Noninvasive neuromodulation affects insula and pain processing.


A study led by Wynn Legon at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute suggests that noninvasive brain stimulation can relieve pain. Their research, published in PAIN, shows that focused ultrasound on the brain’s insula can reduce pain perception and related effects like changes in heart rate.

Legon said, “This is a proof-of-principle study. Can we get the focused ultrasound energy to that part of the brain, and does it do anything? Does it change the body’s reaction to a painful stimulus to reduce your pain perception?”

Focused ultrasound, like prenatal scans, directs sound waves to a specific point. It can gently affect nerve cell activity without tissue damage. Legon’s pioneering study, involving 23 volunteers, used ultrasound to target the brain’s insula, alleviating pain. This marks a novel use of noninvasive techniques for pain relief.

Legon, also an assistant professor at Virginia Tech’s School of Neuroscience, said, “That might seem like a small amount, but once you get to a full point, it verges on being clinically meaningful. It could make a significant difference in the quality of life, or being able to manage chronic pain with over-the-counter medicines instead of prescription opioids.”

The study also showed ultrasound lowered physical responses to pain stress—heart rate and variability. Legon suggested this could improve overall health by enhancing the body’s pain management. The findings hint at future research exploring how the heart and brain interact and whether reducing pain stress can benefit cardiovascular health.

The study conducted by the Virginia Tech scientist highlights the potential of focused ultrasound in relieving deep brain pain. By demonstrating the effectiveness of this noninvasive approach, the research contributes to advancements in pain management strategies. It offers hope for individuals seeking alternatives to traditional treatments.

Journal reference:

  1. Legon, Wynn, Strohman, Andrew, et al., Noninvasive neuromodulation of subregions of the human insula differentially affect pain processing and heart-rate variability: a within-subjects pseudo-randomized trial. Journal of Pain. DOI: 10.1097/j.pain.0000000000003171.


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