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Doctors use deep brain stimulators to fight Parkinson's disease

March 29, 2013 4:29:24 PM PDT
For decades researchers have been working to understand the underlying causes of Parkinson's disease. It's a serious neurological disorder associated with uncontrollable shaking and other symptoms. But now, Bay Area researchers have unlocked new clues, by tapping into the brains of living patients.

Philip Starr, M.D., is a neurosurgeon at UCSF and has tapped into some serious brain power, in the fight against Parkinson's disease, and it came directly from his patients. They were volunteers, already undergoing brain surgery for symptoms of the disease.

"We have patients awake with local anesthetic in the scalp so they don't feel pain. So, we have access directly to the human brain in a way that is rare," Starr said.

After opening a path through the skull for the main procedure, Starr and colleague Coralie De Hemptinne, PH.D., also placed a temporary electrode strip on the surface of the brain. A kind of eves dropping device, designed to capture the signals being sent by the brain's circuitry.

"And we can record from deep in the brain and from the surface of the brain," Hemptinne said.

They say normally, cells at the brain's surface work together temporarily to perform a specific task. But in the Parkinson's patients, the switch didn't turn off.

"And what we found in Parkinson's disease, the brain cells are inappropriately working together all the time. So, they have an inappropriate synchronization," Starr said.

Causing familiar symptoms like uncontrollable shaking. But the team believes that mapping those abnormal rhythms will ultimately help doctors to better interrupt them.

In the last decade, surgeons have implanted small devices known as deep brain stimulators, which deliver electronic pulses at pre-set intervals.

Several years ago, we profiled their use in epilepsy patients like Monica Lovelace. "Last month, I did go a whole month without seizures," she said.

"It's really a very crude therapy and it's amazing it works so well. It delivers a very simple form of stimulus that's on all the time, doesn't adjust itself," Starr said.

The Parkinson's patients in Starr's study were also implanted with brain stimulators during the surgeries. He believes the devices will evolve in the direction of cardiac pacemakers which kick in when they detect an irregular heartbeat, eventually making the treatment far more precise.

"The more we learn about abnormal brain activity in Parkinson's and other movement disorders, the more we'll be able to design brain stimulators to treat them," Starr said.

Deep brain stimulation is typically used in about 10-15 percent of Parkinson's cases. It's usually used on patients with more advanced symptoms who either don't respond to medications, or experience complications from those drugs.

Written and produced by Tim Didion.


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