How Deep Brain Stimulation Can Change Lives

By Natalie Shpringman (Staff Editor)

Now that you’ve gotten to know a bit more about your brain, let’s talk about how we can use that knowledge to change people’s lives for the better. One such application of neuroscience is deep brain stimulation (DBS). Deep brain stimulation, to put it simply, is a neurosurgical procedure that corrects for symptoms caused by movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease or essential tremors. For people with these disorders, the regions in their brains that control movement are misfiring signals.

The procedure first involves implanting electrodes in the region of the brain that is affecting their movement. There are multiple potential regions in which to place the electrodes: the globus pallidus, the subthalamic nucleus, the pedunculopontine nucleus, and the thalamus are all options. After the electrodes are implanted, a wire is implanted underneath the skin to connect these electrodes to a pulse generator. This pulse generator, implanted in the patient’s chest, generates the pulses that stimulate the brain. Together, these parts create a neurostimulator system. If the patient is symptomatic on both halves of their body, they can get DBS on both sides of their brain. Sometimes this can be done in one procedure. For the elderly, however, surgeons tend to do each half separately, treating the hemisphere opposite to the more symptomatic side first.

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Of course, the process doesn’t end there. Once the neurostimulator is installed, doctors need to make sure the patient’s symptoms actually go away. Sometimes the patient is kept awake during the procedure, so that the electrodes can be adjusted as necessary. Other times, an MRI scan is taken of the patient’s brain, and the electrodes are positioned according to where the problem areas are. Even after the surgery, doctors continue to experiment with neurostimulator settings to give the patient the best treatment for their individual symptoms. It can take months for the patient to get the best results.

Interestingly enough, the idea of a neurostimulator made an appearance in science fiction before it became reality. In Michael Crichton’s 1972 novel The Terminal Man, the main character is given a “brain pacemaker” for his epilepsy. A “brain pacemaker” is actually a pretty apt description of what a neurostimulator does. A pacemaker uses electricity to regulate heart activity essentially the same way a neurostimulator uses electricity to regulate brain activity. The only difference is the increased complexity of the brain.

When done correctly, the results of DBS can be life changing. A patient that might’ve not been able to walk normally or at all might be able to live a completely normal life with DBS. Somebody with a tremor might not even be able to write their own name—DBS can cure that. The following video shows how dramatically DBS can change movement disorder symptoms.

Researchers are also testing the efficacy of DBS for treating disorders like PTSD, OCD, and depression, among others. At its core, DBS is just treating electrical misfires with its own pulses. With more research, the technology behind DBS could greatly impact the lives of even more people.

Thanks for reading! Make sure to join us in our next article where we discuss the neuroscience behind the ability to hear color and smell sound!

Vivian Lu