Background: Low-intensity transcranial focused ultrasound stimulation (TFUS) holds great promise as a highly focal technique for transcranial stimulation even for deep brain areas. Yet, knowledge about the safety of this novel technique is still limited.
Objective: To systematically review safety related aspects of TFUS. The review covers the mechanisms-of-action by which TFUS may cause adverse effects and the available data on the possible occurrence of such effects in animal and human studies.
Methods: Initial screening used key term searches in PubMed and bioRxiv, and a review of the literature lists of relevant papers. We included only studies where safety assessment was performed, and this results in 33 studies, both in humans and animals.
Results: Adverse effects of TFUS were very rare. At high stimulation intensity and/or rate, TFUS may cause haemorrhage, cell death or damage, and unintentional blood-brain barrier (BBB) opening. TFUS may also unintentionally affect long-term neural activity and behaviour. A variety of methods was used mainly in rodents to evaluate these adverse effects, including tissue staining, magnetic resonance imaging, temperature measurements and monitoring of neural activity and behaviour. In 30 studies, adverse effects were absent, even though at least one Food and Drug Administration (FDA) safety index was frequently exceeded. Two studies reported microhaemorrhages after long or relatively intense stimulation above safety limits. Another study reported BBB opening and neuronal damage in a control condition, which intentionally and substantially exceeded the safety limits.
Conclusion: Most studies point towards a favourable safety profile of TFUS. Further investigations are warranted to establish a solid safety framework for the therapeutic window of TFUS to reliably avoid adverse effects while ensuring neural effectiveness. The comparability across studies should be improved by a more standardized reporting of TFUS parameters.