The thought of focused ultrasonic beams burning away brain tissue isn't exactly comfortable, but when you factor in not having your skull opened up — well, then it's starting to sound better. The procedure involves an ultrasonic device paired up with an MRI machine, the latter of which pinpoints places for the sound waves to focus on and burn.
Nine patients in Switzerland have already been operated on using high-intensity focused ultrasound (or HIFU). They
were only chronic pain sufferers suffered from chronic pain, and the success of the operations make researchers hopeful that similar techniques can be used to combat other conditions, such as Parkinson's disease.
The procedure has been used before to remove uterine fibroids (or small, benign tumors in the uterus), and looks like a promising candidate to eliminate tumors from breasts and, hopefully, the brain. The biggest challenge when tackling the brain is getting the ultrasonic beams through the skull with any intensity, but that's handled by a head harness developed by InSightec, which is equipped with 1,000 ultrasound transducers and even built-in cooling to keep the skull from overheating.
Tinkering with the brain still sounds scary to me, but neurosurgeon Neal Kassell of the University of Virginia told the Technology Review, "The precision and accuracy [are] considerably greater with ultrasound, and it should be in principle safer in the long run."