Noninvasive neuromodulation could help treat many neurological disorders, but existing techniques have low resolution and weak penetration. Ultrasound (US) shows promise for stimulation of smaller areas and subcortical structures. However, the mechanism and parameter design are not understood. US can stimulate tail and hindlimb movements in rats, but not forelimb, for unknown reasons. Potentially, US could also stimulate peripheral or enteric neurons for control of blood glucose.
To better understand the inconsistent effects across rat motor cortex, US modulation of electrically-evoked movements was tested. A stimulation array was implanted on the cortical surface and US (200 kHz, 30-60 W/cm2 peak) was applied while measuring changes in the evoked forelimb and hindlimb movements. Direct US stimulation of the hindlimb was also studied. To test peripheral effects, rat blood glucose levels were measured while applying US near the liver.
No short-term motor modulation was visible (95% confidence interval: -3.5% to +5.1% forelimb, -3.8% to +5.5% hindlimb). There was significant long-term (minutes-order) suppression (95% confidence interval: -3.7% to -10.8% forelimb, -3.8% to -11.9% hindlimb). This suppression may be due to the considerable heating (+1.8°C between US
on-US conditions); effects of heat and US were not separable in this experiment. US directly evoked hindlimb and scrotum movements in some sessions. This required a long interval, at least 3 seconds between US bursts. Movement could be evoked with much shorter pulses than used in literature (3 ms). The EMG latency (10 ms) was compatible with activation of corticospinal neurons. The glucose modulation test showed a strong increase in a few trials, but across all trials found no significant effect.
The single motor response and the long refractory period together suggest that only the beginning of the US burst had a stimulatory effect. This would explain the lack of short-term modulation, and suggests future work with shorter pulses could better explore the missing forelimb response. During the refractory period there was no change in the electrically-evoked response, which suggests the US stimulation mechanism is independent of normal brain activity. These results challenge the literature-standard protocols and provide new insights on the unknown mechanism.