How ultrasound therapy could treat everything from ageing to cancer

IMAGINE a medical device that could treat an enormous range of our ills, both big and small. A gadget that showed promise for destroying cancerous tumours or obliterating the body fat associated with obesity. Or that was potentially effective against the likes of back pain and glaucoma – and that was even versatile enough to be considered as a tool for tackling depression or anxiety. Surprisingly, such technology exists. Even more surprisingly, it works simply by generating sound waves.

While perhaps most familiar to us for its use in medical imaging, ultrasound has emerged in recent decades as an extraordinarily flexible medical tool. Using the heat that intense ultrasound waves generate, we can destroy tumours or other problematic tissue deep within the body without making any incisions. Dial down the intensity, meanwhile, and we can gain unprecedented access to the brain, shaking cells to change their behaviour in ways that seem to improve mental health. For good measure, ultrasound may even reverse signs of physical ageing and reduce the learning and memory problems associated with older age.

“Ultrasound is already a ubiquitous tool in medicine,” says Nir Lipsman at Sunnybrook Research Institute in Toronto, Canada. “But there’s tremendous focus on it right now because of the different ways we could use it to treat different medical problems.”

The potential applications are coming so thick and fast that they are outpacing our ability to understand why it is so effective. The question now is: can we figure out how ultrasound affects our cells, so the technology can reach its full potential?

Medical imaging

Ultrasound – high-frequency sound above 20 kilohertz –…

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