Deep brain stimulation: 'Flipping the switch' to change a life

Deep brain stimulation: 'Flipping the switch' to change a life

Key takeaways:  

  • Deep brain stimulation (DBS) can help treat symptoms of essential tremor and Parkinson’s disease.

  • Essential tremor is a movement disorder that often affects older adults, causing rhythmic shaking in the hands.

  • DBS is a safe treatment for older adults; studies have shown it can be used in patients over age 75.

[4 MIN READ]

Sipping on a freshly brewed cup of coffee. Enjoying a warm, comforting bowl of soup. Writing a note to your grandchild.

These small, daily events are something many people take for granted. But for Mike Brodlieb, they were frustrating and sometimes impossible tasks. Tremors, caused by a condition called essential tremor, made it difficult to keep his hands and arms steady.

“It affected my entire body,” says 78-year-old Brodlieb. “Even my head was flinching back and forth.”

Essential tremor is a movement disorder that can happen at any age but usually affects older adults. It causes rhythmic shaking, or tremors, generally in the hands.

For Brodlieb, the tremors had worsened with age and he knew he needed to do something to improve his quality of life. Read about his story below.

A ‘brain pacemaker’

After consulting with his neurologist, Joey R. Gee, DO, and neurosurgeon Alexander Taghva, MD, Brodlieb learned that he was a good candidate for deep brain stimulation (DBS). Fortunately, Providence Mission Hospital — just a short drive from Brodlieb’s home in San Juan Capistrano — has leading-edge DBS technology and a neurological team specializing in this life-changing treatment.

DBS is a procedure where neurosurgeons implant small electrodes on certain parts of the brain. Similar to how a pacemaker uses electricity to regulate heart rhythm, DBS electrodes create electrical impulses that can control irregular brain activity causing tremors. These impulses can also help with chemical imbalances in the brain that may trigger certain mental health conditions.

A small battery pack powers the electrical impulses. Surgeons place this battery pack under the skin on the chest.

In addition to treating essential tremor, DBS is also commonly used to treat Parkinson’s disease.

In addition to treating essential tremor, DBS is also commonly used to treat Parkinson’s disease. It can help people with all stages of Parkinson’s whose symptoms don’t respond to medication

DBS can also treat symptoms of:

  • Epilepsy
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Dystonia
  • Tourette’s syndrome

One treatment, two procedures

Deep brain stimulation surgery involves two separate procedures. During the first procedure, the patient is usually sedated, but still awake. The surgeon makes a small cut in the scalp and inserts the electrodes into specific areas of the brain. Once the electrodes are in place, the surgical team sends a low level of electricity through the electrodes to see if the tremors subside.

Although patients are traditionally awake during the first surgery, recent advances in brain imaging technology give patients the option to be fully asleep during this first surgery.

“Within the last five years, we’ve seen a lot of innovation with imaging and directional stimulation,” Dr. Taghva says. “We have special brain CT scans we can use during the operation that allow us to make sure the electrodes are in exactly the right place, even if the patient is asleep.”

During the second surgery, the surgical team attaches the battery pack to the electrodes. They also implant the pack just under the skin below the collar bone. Patients are fully asleep during this procedure.

Two weeks after the battery pack goes in, the patient will have a check-up where the doctor can program the electrodes to control the tremors.

Although the DBS process involves two surgeries, it is still a viable treatment option for older adults. Research has also shown that DBS is safe for older adults with essential tremor and Parkinson’s disease, including patients older than 75.

‘Flipping the switch’ to change a life

“For essential tremor patients, DBS can improve symptoms by 70-80%,” Dr. Taghva says. “People with Parkinson’s disease who undergo DBS usually experience a 50% improvement in motor skills and 80% improvement in tremors.”

People with Parkinson’s disease who undergo DBS usually experience a 50% improvement in motor skills and 80% improvement in tremors. -- Dr. Taghva

But for Dr. Taghva, treatment with DBS isn’t just about percentages and clinical data. It’s about giving his patients a new lease on life.

“It’s very fulfilling for me to be able to help patients who have had these conditions for a long time,” says Dr. Taghva. “With the flip of a switch, we can give them their lives back.”

When Brodlieb completed his DBS treatment, the change was noticeable right away. There was hope that he would be able to enjoy his morning coffee again.

“It was amazing — the effect was immediate. I had 95% less shaking than I did before the procedure,” Brodlieb says. “Dr. Taghva, his team and the nursing staff were excellent. I’ve been to many hospitals and this one stood out.”

It was amazing — the effect was immediate. I had 95% less shaking than I did before the procedure. -- Mike Brodlieb, patient.

Thanks to the advanced DBS technology and Dr. Taghva’s skilled team at Providence Mission Hospital, Brodlieb is enjoying time at home with his son, his three beloved cats, and a range of culinary treats. He’s back to eating Chinese food with chopsticks and enjoying lunchtime soup.

“The first day home after the procedure, I had chicken tortilla soup for lunch without spilling a drop,” he says. “I was so happy I was crying afterward.”

Have you or a loved one experienced the benefits of #DBS? Share your story with us @providence. #neurology

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Find a doctor

At Providence, we believe in combining world-class treatments with compassionate care. If you want to learn more about deep brain stimulation for essential tremor and how it can help you or a loved one, talk to your doctor. You can find a Providence doctor using our provider directory or search for one in your area:

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Related resources

What is deep brain stimulation and how can it help?

What are movement disorders?

Learn the truth behind common Parkinson’s disease myths

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