Breaking ground without breaking skin

Elias Pharaon is 85 years old and can sign his name for the first time in five years. Pharaon came from B.C. to Calgary’s Foothills Medical Centre seeking treatment for a debilitating tremor in his right hand caused by an abnormal network function in his brain. 

The most common type of movement disorder, Pharaon’s “essential tremor” was severely medication-resistant. With his condition drastically impacting his quality of life, he volunteered to undergo a revolutionary procedure called magnetic resonance guided focused ultrasound (MRgFUS), a new technology that allows surgeons to access the brain — without cutting the skin or drilling into the skull. The procedure, performed by a team of surgeons, physicians and researchers at the
Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), changed Pharaon’s life.

A group of UCalgary researchers is undertaking research into MRgFUS. The project is conducted by Dr. Zelma Kiss, a neurosurgeon, HBI member and professor in the departments of Clinical Neurosciences and Psychiatry; Bruce Pike, PhD, HBI member and a professor in the departments of Radiology and Clinical Neurosciences; and Dr. Davide Martino, movement disorder specialist, HBI member and associate professor in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences. These researchers have access to the only MRgFUS system in Western Canada. 

“We’re able to see the brain with real-time temperature imaging and focus multiple beams of high-intensity ultrasound to the brain region responsible for tremor,” explains Dr. Kiss. “The patient is awake the whole time and the results are immediate.” 

Indeed, Pharaon, who didn’t feel anything during the procedure, couldn’t believe the tremor in his hand was gone. “I was so happy — I’ve regained my independence and I feel like I can go out in public again,” he says.    

The MRgFUS technology provides new hope for effective treatments that can drastically reduce recovery times and risks associated with traditional neurosurgery. 

“This is the beginning of a much larger research platform,” says Pike, the MRgFUS research team lead. “The idea of neurosurgery in an awake patient, without breaking the skin, is revolutionary. With the use of this technology, we’re looking at different treatment options for a number of devastating brain diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, dementia, epilepsy and brain tumours.”

This innovative technology has been supported in part through UCalgary’s Energize: The Campaign for Eyes High by way of the Rob McAlpine Legacy Initiative, formed by a group of individuals who’ve collectively contributed $1.5 million towards the development of the MRgFUS Research Platform. McAlpine was the vice-president of finance and chief financial officer for Spartan Controls in Calgary; after his diagnose of Multiple Systems Atrophy (MSA) — from which he passed away in November 2015 — his colleagues were moved to create a fund to support research for those affected by similar disorders. 


Led by the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, Brain and Mental Health is one of six research strategies guiding the University of Calgary toward its Eyes High goals, which is supported by the university’s $1.3-billion Energize fundraising campaign. Together, we will fuel transformational change and help our researchers solve society’s most complex challenges.

Brain and Mental Health

Brain and Mental Health

See how we are unlocking the mysteries of the brain.

Learn more

A New Age of Smart Living

A New Age of Smart Living

The Faculty of Environmental Designs’ remarkable Age-in-Place Laneway Housing Project takes another step closer to filling a lifestyle gap.

Read more

I, Robot — You, Game-Changer

I, Robot — You, Game-Changer

Teaching and learning in a UCalgary robotics lab opens eyes and minds to potentially life-changing technology.

Read more