Roughly 10 million people in the United States suffer from some sort of tremor disorder, whether that's essential tremor — the most common movement disorder — or the tremors resulting from Parkinson's disease.
The current treatment regimens are wide-ranging: medication and therapy are typically prescribed, with mixed results and their own side effects. For people with tremors that are especially disabling, surgery to insert an electrical probe deep into the brain — which is then connected via wire under the skin to a pacemaker-like device implanted near the heart — usually takes place.
But a noninvasive treatment option that uses focused ultrasound to mitigate the effects of essential tremor is slowly making its way into hospitals worldwide. University-affiliated medical systems, such as the Mayo Clinic, are currently using it, and more than 1,000 patients with essential tremor around the world have been treated. It's also being tested further to see how it could be used to treat Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's and to help deliver targeted drug therapy for people suffering from brain tumors. Israel-based Insightec, backed by $400 million of investor capital to date, is the company behind it.
The treatment involves two steps: Patients are first fitted with a helmet that transmits ultrasound waves. They're then placed inside a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine, which allows doctors to monitor and adjust the procedure as it's taking place.
Still, questions remain about how effective a focused ultrasound treatment can be for treating currently incurable conditions like Parkinson's disease.
With ultrasound waves guided by MRI, Insightec's Exablate Neuro system ablates deep brain tissue to improve essential tremors without surgery, sometimes with immediate results. Two years ago the Food and Drug Administration approved the company's technology for treating people with essential tremor: A study conducted by the University of Virginia School of Medicine demonstrated that patients' tremors and motor functions improved about 50 percent three months after treatment.