Parkinson's Patients Find Hope with Deep Brain Stimulation

Armen Hareyan's picture
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Parkinsons Disease Treatment

Tremors and stiffness are only two of many problems Parkinson's disease sufferers can face. For some patients, there is hope to eliminate these symptoms.

More and more patients are having success through deep brain stimulation, a surgical procedure that delivers continuous, high frequency electrical pulses to the brain. Deep brain stimulation alleviates the debilitating symptoms of Parkinson's disease, such as tremors, rigidity, stiffness, slowed movement and walking problems.

Washington University neurologists and neurosurgeons at Barnes-Jewish Hospital have had remarkable success using this procedure in Parkinson's disease patients according to Joshua L. Dowling, MD, assistant professor of neurological surgery at the School of Medicine. "Many patients return to a relatively normal, active lifestyles, usually with a significant reduction in their medication," says Dowling.

Over 50 stimulators were implanted at Barnes-Jewish in 2004 and the device has been used by the Washington University neurologists and neurosurgeons to treat Parkinson's not only since FDA approval in 2002, but also in clinical trials years before that.

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Deep brain stimulation uses a surgically implanted, battery operated medical device called a neurostimulator to deliver electrical stimulation to targeted areas in the brain that control movement, blocking the abnormal nerve signals that cause tremors and other symptoms of Parkinson's disease. Neurostimulators are implanted near the collarbone and generate electric signals that are delivered to the brain via thin-coiled wires with electrodes attached at their tips. Patients are able to turn the deep brain stimulation on when needed, and turn it off when tremors are less frequent.

Patients may still need to take medication after receiving deep brain stimulation, but most patients experience considerable reduction of their Parkinson's disease symptoms and are able to greatly reduce their medications. While deep brain stimulation is not an option for all patients with Parkinson's disease, researchers believe that as many as 15 percent of people with Parkinson's could benefit from deep brain stimulation each year.

Neurologists use four criterions to evaluate whether a patient is a good candidate for deep brain stimulation. The patient must have idiopathic Parkinson's disease, the symptoms must not be able to be controlled by medication, the patient cannot have significant memory, thinking or personality problems and the patient must be able to tolerate the surgery. The patient is awake throughout the surgery, and does not feel any pain.

Deep brain stimulation is not a cure for Parkinson's - it treats the symptoms while Parkinson's continues to advance. Deep brain stimulation may be one of the best treatment options for selected patients with Parkinson's disease.

In addition to its clinical uses, the deep brain stimulation provides a unique way to study Parkinson's disease. Research is also being done on deep brain stimulation as a treatment for seizure disorders, multiple sclerosis, paralysis, obsessive-compulsive disorders and depression.

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