Scott Sperling

University of Virginia clinical neuropsychologist Scott Sperling looked beyond the physical benefits of the focused ultrasound procedure to measure the quality-of-life effects, as well.

Focused ultrasound can not only treat tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease, but it also improves the quality of life, mood and cognitive ability of people with Parkinson’s, according to a new study from the University of Virginia.

As the field of focused ultrasound — a noninvasive technology that uses targeted sound waves to clear areas of the brain — continues to rack up tests, trials and approvals, attention has turned toward the longevity of treatment and commercialization of the product.

According to the Focused Ultrasound Foundation’s chairman, Dr. Neal Kassell, the quality-of-life study is another important measure of the efficacy of focused ultrasound for Parkinson’s and sets a standard for future trials.

“This surgery and any surgery are meaningless if they don’t actually improve day-to-day life,” said Scott Sperling, a clinical neuropsychologist at UVa.

Sperling conducted the study, which looked at the effects of focused ultrasound on 27 adults who all had severe Parkinson’s that had resisted prior treatments. Twenty received the procedure and seven received a fake procedure. Dr. Jeff Elias, a neurosurgeon, measured whether patients’ hand tremors persisted, and concluded that there was significant improvement in motor function in a separate study.

But participants also reported improved emotional well-being and ability to perform simple tasks and lower incidence of depression and anxiety, he said. The only decline in cognitive ability was how quickly participants could identify words and colors, which Sperling said could just be a result of the natural toll of the disease.

“We saw quite significant improvements at a three-month check-in and then a year later,” he said.

Sperling said that while Parkinson’s is typically thought of as a motor and movement disease, it can have profound impacts on someone’s emotional and mental health.

“It’s important for all of us to make sure not to miss what is underneath the surface, because physical symptoms can be so severe,” Sperling said. “Sometimes they mask severe anxiety and depression.”

The study comes after the Focused Ultrasound Foundation, based in Charlottesville, wrapped up its sixth international symposium in Reston in October. The foundation recently was named a top 10 medical research organization by nonprofit watchdog Charity Navigator.

The field has grown from a few scattered projects to 100 clinical indications and counting, 18 different mechanisms of action, more than 20 worldwide approvals, 550 commercial treatment sites and at least 100,000 patients treated, according to materials from the meeting.

“The field is transitioning from research to clinical and commercial applications,” Kassell said.

The symposium highlighted the technology’s use in brain imaging, cancer immunotherapy, liver cancer, lung cancer and tumors in dogs. The two big emerging areas are cancer immunotherapy and opening the blood brain barrier for neurological applications; ultrasound has been used on the first Alzheimer’s patients to see if it can open the blood brain barrier and send treatment directly to targeted areas of the brain.

Kassell said many presentations focused on helping to commercialize the technology, organize clinical trials and gather investors.

“We put much more emphasis on commercial aspects at this meeting than previously because, at the end of the day, the vision can’t be achieved unless we commercialize,” Kassell said. “And all the time, applications continue to happen at an increasing pace.”

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Ruth Serven Smith is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact her at (434) 978-7254, or @RuthServen on Twitter.

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