Using sound to stop chronic shaking

Non-invasive procedure could help patients perform everyday activities

Published On: Apr 18 2012 06:36:14 AM EDT   Updated On: Apr 18 2012 11:46:53 AM EDT

Patients with constant shaking can have trouble with some of life's everyday activities. Things like eating and drinking or holding a pen to write, are almost impossible. Now, a breakthrough procedure could help some patients get a steady hand.

"My hand shook constantly, it would never stop," says Billy Williams, a tremor patient.

For the past 10 years, Williams suffered from a tremor in his hand.

"Constantly, it never, never quit," he says.

No one knows why he shakes, but the tremor was so bad, he stopped eating out in public and his writing became illegible.

"I had trouble writing my name, I couldn't sign anything," he explains.

Now, neurosurgeons are using a new procedure called MRI guided focused ultrasound that stops some types of tremors.

"It involves high resolution MRI scanning as well as ultrasound technology," says Jeff Elias, M.D., neurosurgeon at the University of Virginia Medical Center.

Other procedures involve invasive brain surgery, but the new scalpel-free surgery is the first to use ultrasound in the brain to treat tremors.

"We really have to be precise to within a millimeter to stop the tremor," say Elias.

The procedure is done in an MRI scanner that allows doctors to aim pulses of harmless ultrasound waves through a patient's skull to a targeted region within the brain known to be effective for treating some types of tremors. Thousands of ultrasound waves converge, heating up the area being treated, so that tremor-causing cells die.

"One of the real advantages of this technology is that it allows us the opportunity to test the patient during the treatment," explains Elias.

Billy Williams and his doctors watched his tremor get better, and better during treatment. The end result?

"Almost immediately after the procedure my hand was as it is right now," says Williams.

The world's first clinical trials using MRI guided focused ultrasound to treat essential tremors recently wrapped up at the University of Virginia Health System. Officials say patients are experiencing immediate improvement that's been sustained through the study's three month follow-up period.

Future trials are planned to investigate the technology in treating functional brain disorders like Parkinson's disease, epilepsy and stroke.