Deep Brain Stimulation
In deep brain stimulation (DBS), electrodes are implanted within the brain to deliver a continuous low electric current to the target area. The current is passed to the electrodes through a wire running under the scalp and skin to a battery-powered pulse generator implanted in the chest wall.
The movement disorders of PD and ET are due to loss of regulation in complex circuits within the brain that control movement. While the cause of the two diseases differ, in both cases, certain parts of the brain become overactive. Surgical treatment can include destruction of part of the overactive portion, thus rebalancing the regulation within the circuit. It was discovered that the same effect could be obtained by electrically stimulating the same areas, which is presumed to shut down the cells without killing them.
DBS may be appropriate for patients with PD or ET whose symptoms are not adequately controlled by medications. In PD, this may occur after five to ten years of successful treatment. Continued disease progression leads to decreased effectiveness of the main treatment for PD, levodopa. Increasing doses are needed to control symptoms, and over time, this leads to development of unwanted movements, or dyskinesias. Successful DBS allows a reduction in levodopa, diminishing dyskinesias.
For PD, deep brain stimulation is performed on either the globus pallidus internus (GPi) or the subthalamic nucleus (STN). Treatment of essential tremor usually targets the thalamus. Each of these brain regions has two halves, which control movement on the opposite side of the body: right controls left, and left controls right. Unilateral (onesided) DBS may be used if the symptoms are much more severe on one side. Bilateral DBS is used to treat symptoms on both sides.
DBS is major brain surgery. Bleeding is a risk, and patients with bleeding disorders or who are taking blood thinning agents may require special management. DBS leaves metal electrodes implanted in the head, and patients are advised not to undergo diathermy (tissue heating) due to the risk of severe complications or death. Diathermy is used to treat chronic pain and other conditions. Special cautions are required for patients undergoing MRI after implantation.
In DBS, a long thin electrode is planted deep within the brain, through a hole in the top of the skull. To make sure the electrode is planted in the proper location, a rigid "stereotactic frame" is attached to the patient's head before surgery. This device provides a three-dimensional coordinate system, used to locate the target tissue and to track the placing of the electrodes.
A single "burr hole" is made in the top of the skull for a unilateral procedure. Two holes are made for a bilateral procedure. This requires a topical anesthetic. General anesthesia is not used, for two reasons. First, the brain does not feel any pain. Second, the patient must be awake and responsive in order to respond to the neurosurgical team as they monitor the placement of the electrode. The target structures are close to several nerve tracts that carry information throughout the brain. Abnormalities in vision, speech, or other cognitive areas may indicate that the electrode is too close to one of these regions, and thus needs repositioning.
Other procedures may be used to ensure precise placement of the electrode, including electrical recording and injection of a contrast dye into the spinal fluid. The electrical recording can cause some minor odd sensations, but is harmless.
The electrode is connected by a wire to an implanted pulse generator. This wire is placed under the scalp and skin. A small incision is made in the area of the collarbone, and the pulse generator is placed there. This portion of the procedure is performed under general anesthesia.
A variety of medical tests are needed before the day of surgery to properly locate the target (GPi, thalamus, or STN), and fit the frame. These may include CT scans, MRI, and injection of dyes into the spinal fluid or ventricles of the brain. The frame is attached to the head on the day of surgery, which may be somewhat painful, although the pain is lessened by local anesthetic. A mild sedative is given to ease anxiety.
Implantation of the electrodes, wire, and pulse generator is a lengthy procedure, and the patient will require a short hospital stay afterward to recovery from the surgery. Following this, the patient will meet several times with the neurologist to adjust the stimulator settings, in order to get maximum symptomatic improvement. The batteries in the pulse generator must be replaced every three to five years. This is done with a small incision as an outpatient procedure.
The patient's medications are adjusted after surgery. Most PD patients will need less levodopa after surgery, especially those who receive DBS of the STN.
Risks from DBS include the surgical risks or hemorrhage and infection, as well as the risks of general anesthesia. Patients who are cognitively impaired may become more so after surgery. Electrodes can be placed too close to other brain regions, which can lead to visual defects, speech problems, and other complications. If these occur, they may be partially reduced by adjusting the stimulation settings. DBS leaves significant hardware in place under the skin, which can malfunction or break, requiring removal or replacement.
Deep brain stimulation improves the movement symptoms of PD by 25–75%, depending on how carefully the electrodes are placed in the optimal target area, and how effectively the settings can be adjusted. These improvements are seen most while off levodopa; DBS does little to improve the best response to levodopa treatment. DBS does allow a reduction in levodopa dose, which usually reduces dyskinesias by 50% or more. This is especially true for DBS of the STN; DBS of the GPi may lead to a smaller reduction. Levodopa dose will likely be reduced, leading to a significant reduction in dyskinesias.
DBS in essential tremor may reduce tremor in the side opposite the electrode by up to 80%.
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