Using ultrasound technology in a focused way might lead to notable changes in how the brain works, possibly leading to treatments for issues like depression, addiction, or anxiety, according to a recent study. Scientists at the University of Plymouth in England studied the effects of a new technique known as transcranial ultrasound stimulation (TUS).

Ultrasound tests usually involve widespread ultrasound beams to generate images without affecting the tissue being targeted. But with TUS, by focusing the beams, the pressure in the targeted area can be increased, altering how neurons talk to each other.

As reported in Nature Communications, the researchers found that a study with 24 healthy adults indicated that TUS can cause significant shifts in GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) levels in the brain’s posterior cingulate cortex within an hour after the ultrasound treatment. The study also revealed that after the TUS procedure, the communication of the posterior cingulate cortex with other parts of the brain changed significantly.

However, these shifts weren’t consistent everywhere. The anterior cingulate cortex, another brain region closely tied to mental health issues but responsible for different cognitive tasks like decision-making, learning, and focus, didn’t show changes in GABA levels.

The research group—which included specialists from University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust, University College London, Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, and University of Oxford—believes this study is a crucial step toward using ultrasound to address mental health problems.

They note that the study shows TUS is effective in humans and that brain changes can be reversed, but more research is needed before its clinical use. They’re also looking into whether TUS can affect the dopaminergic system, potentially changing how people make decisions, learn, and are drawn to specific behaviors linked to addiction.

Elsa Fouragnan, PhD, associate professor of neuroscience at the University of Plymouth and a UK Research and Innovation Future Leaders Fellow, comments, “One of the long-term aspirations of neuroscientists is to find ways to change activity in only certain parts of the brain while leaving the rest unchanged. If you are taking medication for depression, for example, the drug will impact the entire brain and clinicians have very limited control over where the drug goes and what it does.”

“We already know that specific regions of the brain (and some of their connections) are dysfunctional in certain conditions but other regions can work perfectly well,” she adds. “This study provides us with the genuine potential to think about using ultrasound for more targeted interventions in people with a range of mental health conditions.”

The study was conducted at the University of Plymouth’s Brain Research and Imaging Centre, a research hub launched in 2022 to dive deeper into brain activity and human behavior.

Featured image: Ultrasound technology being used in the transcranial ultrasound stimulation lab at the University of Plymouth Brain Research and Imaging Centre.