Ultrasound imaging (aka sonography) has been used in many medical fields for over 50 years. The procedure involves sending high frequency sound waves into the body. The sound waves bounce off internal organs, and by measuring the difference in travel times of the refracted waves an image can be created. The sound waves used in ultrasound are not structurally different from audible sound waves, they are just at a higher frequency than humans can hear. A normal adult can hear sounds up to 20 kilohertz, while ultrasound imaging involves frequencies from 20 kHz up to several gigahertz.
While ultrasound imaging has long been used as a medical diagnostic tool, scientists have begun experiment with using ultrasound stimulation as a treatment option. The early target for this treatment is the vagus nerve, which the brain uses to communicate with several major organs, including the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. In order to interact with the vagus nerve, researchers are stimulating the spleen, which is connected to the vagus nerve via a secondary nerve. This stimulation of the spleen lets them “communicate” with the immune system through the vagus nerve. This way of interacting with the vagus nerve could be just as effective as stimulating it directly, which would otherwise be very invasive (it involves surgically implanting electrodes).
There have been 2 recent studies looking at whether this spleen stimulation can create other beneficial effects through the body. One of these studies was performed at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research. Scientists injected rats with a toxin that would trigger an inflammatory immune response, then gave the rats a few minutes of ultrasound treatment targeting the spleen’s nerve. This brief ultrasound exposure reduced the inflammation created by the toxin. The other study, from the University of Minnesota, looked at mice with rheumatoid arthritis. The mice were given 20 minutes of ultrasound treatment every day for a week, and afterwards showed reduced arthritis symptoms.
While these initial results are promising, there is still much work to be done. For example, scientists still don’t understand the exact mechanisms at work here. It’s not clear how repeated ultrasound stimulation to the spleen is causing effects elsewhere in the body, or how the ultrasound waves are activating nerves at all. We also don’t know if there are any potential side effects, either for repeated stimulation to the spleen specifically or for any other nerve interactions being affected that scientists don’t fully understand yet. However, scientists are still working towards a trial to test the effectiveness of potentially using this type of treatment in humans to relieve arthritis.
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