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Ultrasound Healing Studied for Peripheral Nervous System

Elisa Konofagou

Elisa Konofagou (Columbia University)

20 January 2016. A biomedical engineering lab is investigating ultrasound stimulation of the peripheral nervous system as a therapeutic technique for human organs. The research at Columbia University in New York is funded by a four-year $3.33 million grant from Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The peripheral nervous system is the array of neural connections linking the central nervous system — brain and spinal cord — with all other organs and functions in the body. Vital human functions affected by the peripheral nervous system include autonomic functions, such as regulation of heart muscles, voluntary skeletal muscles, and sensory organs such as vision and hearing.

DARPA, through its Electrical Prescriptions or ElectRx program seeks to explore harnessing stimulation of the peripheral nervous system to improve mental and physical health. The agency hopes to develop a better knowledge of the underlying science, leading to minimally-invasive technologies that stimulate peripheral nerves to encourage natural healing functions in the body. Awards from ElectRx aim to result in proof-of-concept demonstrations of feedback-controlled neuromodulation.

The Columbia team, led by biomedical engineering professor Elisa Konofagou, is examining the role of ultrasound stimulation as part of this strategy. Ultrasound in medicine is best known as an imaging technique, such as for fetal images and echocardiograms to view the heart’s shape and actions. The technique is also used routinely for therapies, such as breaking up of scar tissue or kidney stones.

Konofagou’s lab investigates advanced functions with ultrasound, including imaging, therapies, and drug-delivery systems through the blood-brain barrier. In this project. Konofagou and colleagues from Columbia’s engineering and medical schools will determine if ultrasound can generate focused peripheral nerve stimulation to deliver therapeutic signals to specific organs. Among the projected outcomes is a wearable device to stimulate the saphenous nerve running down the middle of the thigh, responsible for skin sensation.

“We know that, as ultrasound propagates through biological tissue,” says Konofagou in a university statement. “it exerts mechanical pressure on that tissue, which stimulates specific mechanosensitive channels in neurons and causes them to ‘turn on.’ So we think that this is a way we can use ultrasound to turn specific nerves ‘on’ or ‘off’ depending on what the treatment calls for.”

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