Brain scientists at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital are revolutionizing the way patients with debilitating tremors are treated -- without invasive surgery or anesthetic.

Doctors have successfully used focused ultrasound waves to reach an area deep inside the brains of patients suffering from a condition known as “essential tremor,” the most common movement disorder that is often resistant to medical treatment. 

With the guidance of an MRI, more than 1,000 ultrasound beams are delivered to a small target in the brain, killing the cells that cause the uncontrollable shaking. 

The procedure does not require a general anesthetic and the patient is awake the entire time.

Although only five patients have been treated with ultrasound waves in Canada so far, experts at Sunnybrook say the procedure seems to be safe, with “limited” side effects.

Tony Lightfoot, 68, is among the patients who underwent the procedure to treat his shaky arms and hands.

Many patients with essential tremor have a very difficult time using their dominant hand to eat, drink or write, and for Lightfoot, the simple tasks of taking a sip of water or buttoning his shirt were torturous.  

“That is pretty much what the tremors are all about and sometimes they get uncontrollable. I will throw things and bang my hands and cut myself with a knife,” Lightfoot told CTV News before his treatment.

He said the opportunity to undergo the ultrasound treatment is a “great hope for the future.”

“I am hoping to be able to write again,” he said. “I am hoping to write with a cup of coffee in my hand, without spilling. I am hoping to sit with a friend and if he offers you a cup of tea or coffee or beer that I can hold it instead of throwing it all over the place.”

Another patient who was treated four months ago, 78-year-old Frank Winnacott, said the effects of the ultrasound beams have been “marvellous.”

“From the time they called me in to when I came out, the change was there,” said Winnacott, who has had essential tremor since his early 40s. “Now I can hold a teacup and not spill it.”

Dr. Andres Lozano of Toronto Western Hospital’s Krembil Neuroscience Centre, which is collaborating with Sunnybrook, said the results of a guided ultrasound wave treatment are “immediate.”

“As soon as we burn the cells that cause the tremor, it goes away,” he said.

“This is the kind of surgery where you could come in and go home an hour later. So it is really a game changer.”

Dr. Michael Schwartz, the principal investigator and head of Sunnybrook’s division of neurosurgery, said the results so far are “very exciting.”

“Here’s a chance to do something without making a hole in the patient, so there is no risk of infection or damage and yet we can achieve the same results (as surgery),” he said.

Schwartz said it’s been 20 years “since there has been a development like this in brain work.”

The procedure will also be tested to see if it can successfully eliminate uterine fibroids, and even destroy brain tumours without ever slicing open the patient’s skull.

With a report from CTV’s medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip