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Seeing Sound: A New Endeavor in Ultrasound Surgery

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Dr. Steven Allen is pursuing research that could replace scalpels with soundwaves in certain neurological surgeries. If it sounds crazy, well, he would probably agree with you.

“It’s a big hypothetical,” he said.

Although there are existing surgeries that use soundwaves to ablate small sections of the brain, Allen hopes to discover if ultrasound can coax broken neurons back to normal operation. In theory, ultrasound waves could drill tiny holes in cell membranes and admit otherwise impenetrable drugs, or they activate embedded packets to DNA to spur a neuron back to activity. Allen hopes this technology will cure or alleviate physical handicaps.

“This is really exciting,” he said. “People are excited about the possibility of doing this.”

Those people include panelists within the National Science Foundation, which recently awarded Allen a grant to pursue whether this technology would be possible. Allen and his team have two years to figure it out.

Ultrasound itself is not a novel concept in the medical world. In addition to seeing inside the human body, scientists have used ultrasound to repair isolated nerves separate from the rest of their bodies.

The way a neuron responds to ultrasound depends a lot on its environment, so getting the proper response from it depends on having a good idea of the pressure and frequency it experiences. This is easy with an isolated neuron in a cell culture, when all one needs to do is place a probe next to it.

The problem arises when scientists try to use ultrasound to nerves inside of bodies. It simply doesn’t work, so when it comes to measuring human neurons, probes aren’t the answer.

“Nobody wants a probe stuck in their brain or spine,” Allen laughed. “I mean, no thank you.”

And using probes, he said, defeated the point of noninvasive surgery. He will use the grant to try to build a device that non-invasively measures the sound field inside a living subject.

He and his team—undergraduate students Davie Cavinatto and Evan Conger— are building an electromagnet that can be used in tandem with an MRI scanner and ultrasound device to modify the resulting MRI scans of a human subject so the picture gives a measure of the sound field inside that person. The picture will show the ultrasound waves as they propagate through the subject.

Step one: create an electromagnet. Allen and his team are currently halfway through building one, and they have two years to finish everything else. Once the electromagnet is finished, it’s testing, testing, and more testing.

The team will need to ensure the magnet will cooperate with both an MRI scanner and an ultrasound applicator. They will also need to ensure their magnet can operate safely around a human subject, working with a jello-like mannequin that replicates the magnetic properties of the human body.

After they prove the magnet causes no harm, they can start the final leg: testing on a human subject.

If magnet, ultrasound, and MRI scanner work together, the MRI will produce a map of the ultrasound inside the human subject. Allen’s team will see the sound field, and they will be able to make adjustments and rescan accordingly.

He has hopes of seeing the sound field in real time, but that’s a long way out.

“What I got the money to do is prove that this thing can work,” he said. “If that succeeds, then we’ll move to the next step of incorporating it into some kind of therapeutic workflow.”

With the end in mind, he also recognized where the project got its start: a BYU College of Engineering seed fund and research grant that supported the undergraduates involved. He said they wouldn’t be where they are without it.

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