Andrew Neff, Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology at Oxford College of Emory University, researches mental health, education, and new technology developments in neuroscience. His Podcast and Audiobocalled Neighborhood Neuroscience is available on most major podcast platforms.
Drug-Delivery Technology Opens New Doors for Psychiatric Treatments
It is hard to precisely deliver drugs to the brain, but an emerging technique called focused ultrasound has begun to do so in experimental trials for people with cancer and neurological diseases. Our research suggest that this technology would also have important implications in mental illness, and one possible example is Autism.
In recent years, scientists have studied whether oxytocin, a chemical often associated with prosocial behavior, could be used as a drug for the treatment of Autism. However, most experiments have not found any obvious clinical benefits in human subjects. These trials are emblematic of our failures to identify new drugs to treat most mental disorders.
But, focused ultrasound, a minimally-invasive intervention brings new hope. Applying sound waves to the brain makes the brain susceptible to drug delivery, allowing drugs to be targeted to specific regions of the brain. This is clearly useful when trying to target toxic chemicals to cancer tumors, but the basic possibility of minimally-invasive region-specific drug delivery opens many doors. There is a growing appreciation for the fact that chemicals do different things in different parts of the brain. For example, considering social behavior, in mice, there are regions of the brain in which oxytocin can encourage social behavior and regions where oxytocin actually prevents it. A rational treatment, using oxytocin, would discriminate where in the brain Oxytocin is administered, and focused ultrasound can do that.
This technology has not yet been tested in human psychiatric conditions, and questions about safety remain. However, it is allowing scientists to study the chemical systems in the living human brain with more precision than ever before, which will lead to new interventional trials and consequently new hope for the treatment of many mental disorders, including Autism.