Seen as a potential breakthrough for many psychiatric illnesses, neuromodulation devices stimulate brain networks to regulate aberrant neural pathways, proffering a more natural and efficacious option for patients. Much excitement has been garnered by the development of these devices with research now concentrating on the noninvasive, fully reversible modulation of specific brain circuits to revolutionize the diagnosis and treatment of brain disorders. Now, a study from researchers led by the University of Utah controls the choices macaque monkeys made when presented with visual stimuli using non-invasive pulses of ultrasound waves on specific brain regions. The team states their findings indicate ultrasonic-based neuromodulation could provide a non-invasive, drug-free option to possibly study and treat decision-making disorders such as addiction, binge-eating, and compulsive behaviors. The opensource study is published in the journal of Science Advances.
Previous studies involving the use of neural stimulation to control a subject have produced mixed results. Low-intensity ultrasound waves applied to rodent brains noninvasively was shown to stimulate neurons and cause corresponding muscle movements elsewhere in the body. However, recent studies suggest the technique may produce negligible effects with studies in larger animals and humans not well documented. The current study shows brief, low-intensity ultrasound pulses delivered noninvasively into specific brain regions of macaque monkeys influence their preference between numerous targets.
The current study observes two unanesthetized primates engaged in a gold-standard experiment to investigate decision-based behaviors. The animals were shown a target at the center of the screen and targets on the left and right sides of the screen, in a quick sequence. Initially, the ultrasound was applied to the motor cortex, a region uninvolved in the decision-making process, which did not exhibit any effect. Results show when ultrasonic waves were briefly applied to the monkeys’ frontal eye fields, brain regions controlling eye movement, the monkeys were influenced to look at a particular target of the researcher’s choice with a bias of 2:1. Data findings show when the left frontal eye fields are targeted the monkeys are more likely to choose the right target, and conversely, the left target was chosen more frequently by the animals when the right frontal eye fields are modulated.
The lab states they learned many crucial factors expected to aid in the development of neurostimulation devices capable of controlling a subject to administer psychiatric treatments. They go on to add this includes vital information on maximizing the effects of ultrasonic neuromodulation, such as avoiding the use of anesthesia, and ensuring the effects of ultrasound have time to emerge by applying neuromodulation relatively infrequently in lengthy sessions to avoid diminishing the effects.
The team surmises they successfully demonstrate remote, brain region-specific control of choice behavior with ultrasonic waves. For the future, the researchers state potential applications for their technology involves substituting anesthesia, enabling systematic investigations, and treatments of brain circuits underlying disorders of choice.
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