focused ultrasound

Focusing Ultrasound Deep into the Human Brain May Revolutionize the Treatment of Pain

Researchers from Virginia Tech’s College of Science report that focusing ultrasound deep into the human brain can reduce pain without drugs or other treatments. The researchers also say patients in their clinical trial experienced less stress on their hearts in painful situations, also opening up other potential avenues for treating pain.

While the reduction of pain from ultrasound treatments was small, the researchers believe improvements in their methods could mean the difference between a patient needing potentially addictive medications and over-the-counter analgesics to treat their pain.

Pain Reduction from Ultrasound “Verges On Being Clinically Meaningful”

Twenty-three healthy participants were enlisted to test whether ultrasound focused on the insula, which is the part of the brain that registers pain, would reduce the feelings and effects of pain. Each participant received heat to the back of their hands to induce pain.

During the sessions, the participants wore a specialized device that focused ultrasound deep into their brains. Unlike the more general ultrasound used to image a fetus in the womb, this “targeted” ultrasound was more tightly focused on the insula. To get the most accurate results, the researchers used an MRI to accurately guide the ultrasound waves.

After each session, the participants were asked to register the level of the pain on a scale from 0 to 9. As the researchers had hoped, the sessions where the patient was receiving the ultrasound treatments averaged three-fourths of a point below the untreated pain.

“That might seem like a small amount, but once you get to a full point, it verges on being clinically meaningful,” said Wynn Legon, an assistant professor in the School of Neuroscience in Virginia Tech’s College of Science and the lead author on the research paper detailing his team’s findings. “It could make a significant difference in quality of life, or being able to manage chronic pain with over-the-counter medicines instead of prescription opioids.”

Mitigating Stress Reactions to Pain May Also Lead to New Treatments 

Along with analyzing each participant’s pain rating, the researchers also measured their heart rates and heart rate variability. The latter is significant because pain can induce extreme changes in the time between heartbeats, which can lead to undue stress and, ultimately, disease in the heart tissue.

“Your heart is not a metronome. The time between your heartbeats is irregular, and that’s a good thing,” Legon said. “Increasing the body’s ability to deal with and respond to pain may be an important means of reducing disease burden.”

Like the reduction of pain reported by the patients, the effect of induced pain on heart rate variability was reduced. Legon said these particular findings may lead to treatment options for reducing pain that involve reducing its effects on heart rate as well as its overall effects on pain-induced stress.

Moving forward, Legon says he would like to explore other ways that focused ultrasound can help reduce pain, as well as trying to find ways to reduce the effects of pain on the human heart. However, he feels that their initial results showed they are on the right path.

“This is a proof-of-principle study,” he said. “Can we get the focused ultrasound energy to that part of the brain, and does it do anything? Does it change the body’s reaction to a painful stimulus to reduce your perception of pain?”

Christopher Plain is a Science Fiction and Fantasy novelist and Head Science Writer at The Debrief. Follow and connect with him on X, learn about his books at, or email him directly at