Seeing with sound to some may sound like science fiction, but to Sonographers it is a way of life. The technology was first used as an underwater navigation tool by submarines in the form of sonar, it was only a matter of time before medical scientists began to query whether sound waves could be used to create images of the internal organs of the human body. The technology has advanced so much that it is used in space by astronauts and on the battle field by soldiers all in the palm of the operator’s hands. Sonography, as it is officially known, keeps breaking boundaries like a sonic boom, however, with recent studies discovering its potential use as a treatment for several diseases.
Brothers Pierre and Jacques Curie discovered that mechanical pressure applied to a quartz crystal would produce and electrical signal, a phenomenon which would be dubbed piezoelectricity. (1) Later observations revealed that applying an electrical volt to the crystal created ultrasonic waves. During the first World War, devices were made that could send and receive this sonic information known as transducers. A Frenchman, Paul Langevin, and his colleagues created an “ultrasonic submarine detector”, which would send an ultrasound pulse into the ocean and measure the time it would take for the wave to return in, thusly calculating the distance of the object. (2) A technique known as SONAR (Sound Navigation and Ranging). It would also be famously used when the Titanic sank in 1912.
Research and development in ultrasound technology increased in the coming years. In 1942 Austrian physician Dr. Karl Dussik was the first person to create a diagnostic ultrasound image of the human body. (3)
A blurry image of a human brain, utilizing this new technique to detect brain tumors. He dubbed his imaging “hyperphonography”. Shortly following Dr. Dussik was Dr. George Ludwig from Pennsylvania who was the first to image gallstones. (4)
It was not long before ultrasound infiltrated every aspect of clinical inquiry, from cardiology and obstetrics to pediatrics and physical therapy, there is not one medical specialty where ultrasound isn’t used. Whether in a large hospital or a rural town where medical care is scant up to and including or the international space station, diagnostic sonography cannot be denied as an important tool in modern medicine.
We have not, however, reached the pinnacle of ultrasound usefulness. Recent studies abound, that ultrasound has potential use in debilitating conditions. Essential tremor, a condition affecting an estimated 10,000,000 people in the US, is known to respond to thalamotomy or the surgical obliteration of the thalamus. A new technique “Focused Ultrasound” is a is a “completely non-invasive method of thalamotomy that could be an effective option for certain patients”, it “uses focused beams of acoustic energy to heat and destroy target cells without harming adjacent tissue”, according to the Focused Ultrasound Foundation. (5) In other recent research, Chinese investigators were able to “wag the tail of an unconscious mouse using only ultrasound directed at its brain”, a curious finding with implications for ultrasound as a potential treatment for neurological disorders. (6) The amount of adjunct therapies and new findings for this fascinating technology is far too vast for this essay.
We are in exciting times that only point to a brighter future with ultrasound as a diagnostic and therapeutic technique. With not so humble beginnings detecting submarines, to its utilization as a noninvasive way to diagnose and treat human disease with no end in sight to its use in health. Seeing with sound may sound like an oxymoron, however, to us Sonographer that is the sound reality.