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Ultrasound for Depression and Anxiety

It’s an unfortunate reality that many individuals with depression do not respond to common antidepressants or therapy. Because of this, researchers are currently seeking new methods of treating depression, including brain stimulation procedures and other neurotechnology. One of the biggest benefits of current neurotech such as ultrasound is their ability to potentially help in the treatment of depression without the invasive procedures that might have been required in the past.

We spoke with Sterling Cooley, an expert in the field of neurotechnology including ultrasound as a treatment for depression, to learn more about the potential of this treatment option for helping with both depression and anxiety. Cooley earned his reputation within the field after assembling a team that included experts in ultrasound, expert software engineers, neuroscientists, clinicians and doctors throughout the years of 2013 and 2014. Today, Cooley works in China helping in the manufacturing of the technologies used in brain stimulation treatments.

What is Ultrasound Technology?

To better understand how ultrasound can potentially work in the treatment of depression, it’s important to understand precisely what ultrasound technology is. 

“Go back to Marie Curie,” states Sterling Cooley. “Famous scientist, awesome lady. Her husband also was a scientist, and he was studying the properties of quartz crystals, which when you put electricity in them, they vibrate.” It’s an effect called piezoelectricity, in which when certain crystals (and other materials, such as those within the body) are squeezed, electricity is produced. Note that the reverse is true as well. “In the body, that’s how ultrasound itself works,” Cooley goes on to say.

“So what do those vibrations do?” he posits, referring to the vibrations created with ultrasound treatment. “When you put physical vibrations into a neuron, it moves these microtubules, and when you vibrate them with sound waves they actually create electrical activity inside the brain.” Essentially, it’s the ultrasound used in these procedures that creates the physical vibrations that go into the brain, which in turn creates electrical activity. This electrical activity stimulates neurons inside the brain.

“We’re essentially doing really targeted electrical stimulation that is very hard to do with actual electricity,” Cooley concludes. 

Understanding Alpha

But how does this actually help with depression and anxiety? Apparently, it has everything to do with Alpha. Alpha brain waves are dominant when your brain is in focus, as may occur during meditation or other mindfulness activities. However, studies have shown that people with depression have weak Alpha, primarily on the right side, while the left side tends to have stronger emissions of Alpha pulsations.

Researchers theorized that using brain stimulation techniques such as ultrasound on the right side of the brain could potentially stimulate Alpha brain waves to treat depression, and found during their studies that it made a statistically significant impact, all by putting a traditional ultrasound probe to the right side of the head. 

“Fifteen minutes is all it took for people’s mood to be uplifted, and that lasted for about two hours,” Cooley notes, creating an almost euphoric feeling. He also explained that in addition to the short term effects, people continued to feel uplifted in their moods for a longer period after treatment, for a period of up to 45 days. 

What Happens During an Ultrasound Appointment?

“It’s really simple. It really doesn’t take a lot,” says Cooley. A person goes into a treatment center and sits in a central room. The clinician will come in with either a cart-based ultrasound system or a handheld probe, about the size of an iPhone. Ultrasound gel is applied to the probe, the right side of the temple is cleaned, and the probe is slowly put into place. 

The clinician or patient holds the probe on the patient’s head and keeps it there for approximately ten minutes, though sometimes thirty-minute sessions are an option. During the procedure the patient can chat with the clinician, relax, or even meditate depending on their preference. Once that’s done, the probe is removed and cleaned and the session is over. It’s a simple, non-invasive treatment. “You’d probably want to have people come in once a day every day for two weeks straight,” notes Cooley.

Research and Evidence on Ultrasound Treatment for Depression

Much research has been done on ultrasound treatment, including double-blind studies during which the individuals receiving treatment did not know whether the device was on or off, with a placebo administered to some patients who did not know whether the ultrasound machine was on or off. Patients chosen for the study included those suffering from Major Depressive Disorder. 

They found that the people who received a placebo did report an initial sense of well-being. However, this feeling typically faded away within five to ten minutes. Meanwhile, those who received the real treatment reported a sustained sense of well-being, which lasted for the longer term. 

The study Cooley refers to was done at the University of Arizona – Tucson by Dr. Stuart Hameroff in 2013, and helped to boost interest in ultrasound procedures and their potential to help with mood, chronic pain, anxiety and more. These results have been replicated in other studies also focused on ultrasound since then. 

Those interested in seeing more examples of studies within the field can visit the subreddit Cooley set up on the subject.

Is it Different For Anxiety?

The procedure is generally the same in treating both depression and anxiety, without much change in the ultrasound procedure. The main differences in treatment include treatments such as therapy that go along with the use of the procedure. “Treating the brain with ultrasound can mitigate some of the effects of anxiety, but it works I think way better on depression than on physical manifestations of anxiety,” says Cooley. However, this does not mean that ultrasound treatment cannot do anything for those suffering from anxiety.

One thing that’s important to understand when it comes to the difference between the way ultrasound and other brain stimulation techniques work for both depression and anxiety is the difference between these two disorders. Depression is in essence a depression in brain activity, as noted by what we’ve learned regarding Alpha. Anxiety has much more to do with people’s fears, beliefs, and their instinctive responses to situations. 

He notes that ultrasound treatment could potentially give those going through anxiety treatment with a therapist the boost of brain energy they need to undergo longer sessions. However, ultimately the sessions themselves are the same, though less research exists on the use of neurotechnology such as ultrasound to treat anxiety. 

How Do I Find Ultrasound Treatment for Depression?

At this time, those interested in receiving ultrasound treatment for depression may find it difficult. Those who live around universities doing studies, such as the University of Arizona – Tucson, Harvard, Stanford, and Virginia Tech, may be able to get themselves into one of these studies. However, there aren’t really walk-in centers where people can receive treatment, though this is likely to change as research develops and grows. 

Regarding practitioners of this treatment and finding ultrasound treatment for the brain, “It’s not something done very commonly,” says Cooley, noting this is largely due to the complexity of the brain. In some instances, people interested in neurotech such as ultrasound treatment for the brain can purchase their own handheld devices to perform this treatment on themselves. 

Transcranial magnetic stimulation is a similar treatment option that has been adopted more quickly and is based on many of the same principles as ultrasound treatment for the brain. Like ultrasound, TMS is non-invasive and is a brain stimulation technique that helps to increase brain activity, and like ultrasound is generally well-tolerated in people who use this treatment option.

A Final Note

“One thing that I think is important to understand about depression and anxiety and the way that they’re related… is there’s a physical component and a psychological component,” Cooley says. “There’s a lot of technology and pills and stuff you can get… but you also will probably need to look at – I do believe there’s something deeper going on in terms of ‘mental software’ that’s running in your brain.

“Your inner thoughts during the day really determine what you focus on. If we can be more aware – more mindful if you will of what is going on in our day to day thinking, you might start to realize that your brain and the way you talk to yourself could be keeping you more depressed than you actually think,” he goes on to say.

“One place to start is how do you talk to yourself when you wake up in the morning? How do you talk about yourself in your own mind? That’s something to be really aware of, and if you notice you’re talking to yourself negatively, you can just start writing down, how would you talk to yourself if you were being really positive? How would you be your own best cheerleader every day? And I would say that could do a lot too.”