Advancing addiction, pain research with focused ultrasound

Virginia Tech
(© Andriy Blokhin – stock.adobe.com)

You can’t hear its high frequencies, but you likely know what ultrasound is. Bats and whales use these high frequency sonic waves to navigate. In the biomedical world, ultrasound technology lets parents see babies in the womb.

Scientists have found new and powerful uses for ultrasound beyond its use as a diagnostic tool. Focused ultrasound is an exciting new noninvasive technology, not involving any surgical intervention. It is currently FDA approved for clinical use in humans to treat brain disorders, such as essential tremor and Parkinson’s-associated tremor. It is also being evaluated for use in the treatment of solid tumors and neurological disorders rooted deep inside the brain with incredible precision – all without lifting a scalpel.

Wynn Legon, a neuroscientist and pioneer in the use of focused ultrasound, will continue advancing this technology when he joins the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC as an assistant professor on Sept. 1.

Legon believes the technology can be used to treat addiction and pain.

“We have this amazing opportunity to probe the brain noninvasively that we didn’t have before,” said Legon, who will also be an assistant professor in the Virginia Tech College of Science and affiliated with the School of Neuroscience. “We hope ultrasound becomes a new tool that neuroscientists can use to map the brain or apply to their specific questions and translate this to effective clinical therapies.”

The ultrasound wand physicians use to examine a baby in the womb sends out a broad signal that bounces off of tissues to produce images. In focused ultrasound, similar to how a magnifying glass focuses sunlight to a small point, an acoustic lens narrows sound waves to a precise spot – as tiny as a millimeter across – to modulate activity in the brain.

Legon will be working with a new magnetic resonance imaging-guided focused ultrasound facility at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute in Roanoke, installed with the support of a $1.8 million grant from the Edward N. and Della L. Thome Memorial Foundation. His lab will study the science of how ultrasound affects brain cell activity, how variations in the application change that activity, and how this can be used to treat specific brain diseases.

“We’ve chosen addiction and pain as our first targets because of the need in the community in light of the connection between pain and addiction,” Legon said. “We’re in desperate need of nonpharmacological alternatives for pain treatment, to get away from dependence on opioids.”

In 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first focused ultrasound device to treat essential tremor in patients who had not responded to medication. The treatment often instantly relieves the tremors. Last year, the FDA approved focused ultrasound to relieve pain in patients, including children, with bone tumors called osteoid osteomas.

In 2014, Legon was a postdoctoral associate at the research institute when he co-authored a study in Nature Neuroscience that described how focused ultrasound could be used to modify human brain activity that also resulted in changes in behavior. The study leapt ahead of the previous understanding of what ultrasound could do and took years to be accepted, Legon said.

“We’re gaining traction now. Other labs have replicated our results,” he said.

Legon comes to Virginia Tech after four years as an assistant professor in the University of Virginia School of Medicine’s Department of Neurological Surgery. He previously was on the faculty in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine. He is the first Fralin Biomedical Research Institute postdoctoral associate to return to the institute as a principal investigator.

He earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in kinesiology and health science at York University in Toronto and a doctoral degree in kinesiology and cognitive and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. He was a visiting scholar at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in 2017.

Returning to the research institute feels like a homecoming for Legon, and also the right move to advance his research.

“I’ve come full circle,” Legon said. “I love this place. It’s state-of-the-art. It’s cutting edge.”

 


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