Understanding the human brain and how it works has always been challenging – and risky, since it required invasive brain surgery to truly understand how the brain’s electrical pulses result in functioning. But recent research into sound technology could change the way we study and understand the brain. The sound-based techniques may also prove useful in treating certain illnesses or conditions, including epilepsy and blindness.
What may change: Instead of inserting devices through the skull and into the brain – the traditional way of studying the brain – scientists recently showed that we can use low-intensity ultrasonic waves to remotely and safely excite central nervous system neurons.
These revolutionary discoveries are expected to change our understanding of how cells function, and even how cells can be influenced to create medical advancements.
How Brain cells function and how sound Influences
The cells that form the brain, nerves, and spinal cord are called neurons. These neurons interrelate using electrical pulses, commonly referred to as action potentials.
Ultrasonic waves may be relatively new to brain research, but they are not new to medical treatment. You’ve no doubt heard of, or experienced, ultrasound used to create an image of an unborn child, and you may have been given ultrasonic heat therapy by a physical therapist. The science behind these techniques are similar – identifying or stimulating cellular activity through interaction with sound waves.
The new research they performed was based on applying a new model of understanding to identify the way sound waves and cells interact. The key: the cellular membrane.
The cell’s membrane is like a skin that surrounds the cell, keeping the cell’s contents intact and protected from outside influences, and also store an electrical charge.
The molecules that form the cell’s membrane are arranged in two layers, with a buffer zone between them. The researchers found that when the ultrasonic waves “ping” a cell, both membrane layers vibrate, causing the membrane's electrical charge to move, creating an alternating current that builds the charge to the point that it can create an action potential.
The Technion researchers used the theoretical model to predict results, which were then verified by the Stanford University team using brain stimulation experiments in mice.
Increasing our understanding of how ultrasound affects nerve cells.
- Scientists may use ultrasonic waves to explore the inner workings and structure of the brain – unquestionably less invasive and safer than physically implanting electrodes.
- The ultrasonic wave information could serve to support information gleaned via MRI scans, giving doctors a more accurate and in-depth diagnosis of medical conditions in the brain or spine.
- Ultrasonic wave therapy could became a way of treating epileptic seizures.
- The research believe that ultrasonic wave therapy may be able to stimulate retina cells in the eyes. Doing so may allow those with blindness see images or may enable anyone to “see” objects when there is no light.