North American first: Sunnybrook studies scalpel-free brain surgery to treat depression
For the first time in North America, researchers at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre are investigating the safety and effectiveness of using MRI-guided focused ultrasound to help patients with treatment-resistant major depression.
Focused ultrasound is an incision-free, image-guided technology that targets specific areas of the brain using high frequency ultrasound waves.
In this trial, focused ultrasound will be used to cause a lesion in a region of the brain (the anterior limb of the internal capsule) to disrupt a pathway of the brain that has been established as being active in depression. This pathway is considered to be a “highway” connecting the frontal lobes to the emotional centres of the brain, including the amygdala and hippocampus.
“Although we are in the early stages of investigating the safety and efficacy of focused ultrasound in patients with depression, it has the potential to be another treatment option,” says Dr. Nir Lipsman, principal investigator of the trial, and Director of the Harquail Centre for Neuromodulation at Sunnybrook.
Each year, 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental health problem or illness, and at some point in their lives, about 24 per cent of adults will experience an episode of major depression.
“I’ve struggled with depression for 30 years and tried just about every treatment in existence,” says Linda Bohnen, the first patient in North America to be treated with focused ultrasound for depression. “What I’m hoping will happen is a slow but steady improvement in my mood and functioning.”
“For patients with major depression who aren’t responding to existing standard treatment therapies, circuit disruption techniques, such as focused ultrasound, make it possible to treat areas deep in the brain noninvasively, without surgical incisions,” says Dr. Anthony Levitt, co-investigator and Chief of the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Program at Sunnybrook.
Focused ultrasound was successfully tested in a world first trial at Sunnybrook and other medical centres for use with patients with essential tremor, which led to Health Canada and FDA approval in 2016. Philanthropic investment has been a major catalyst behind Sunnybrook’s advances in focused ultrasound technology and research. Leading donors to this work are the Weston Brain Institute, The Beamish Family Foundation, FDC Foundation, Slaight Family Foundation, Harquail family through the Midas Touch Foundation and the Connor and Robinson families.
Dr. Kullervo Hynynen, Director of Physical Sciences at Sunnybrook Research Institute, worked with industry partner INSIGHTEC for almost two decades to develop the technology.
“This is innovation, medicine and science coming together to go beyond existing treatments for patients with depression,” says Maurice R. Ferré MD, INSIGHTEC’S CEO and Chairman of the Board of Directors.
“Focused ultrasound is a noninvasive alternative to surgery or radiation that offers the potential to treat more patients with major depression, as well as other psychiatric disorders,” says Dr. Neal Kassell, Chairman of the Focused Ultrasound Foundation. “Sunnybrook has become a leader in focused ultrasound research for brain disorders, and the Foundation is pleased to support this innovative trial.”
Phase I of the trial will involve six patients, ages 25-80 years old, over a one-year period who will undergo one round of focused ultrasound, and then assessed for severity of depression and level of functioning at one month, three months, six months and 12 months.
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