Deep Brain Stimulation at the Medical College of Wisconsin

Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) is a surgical option for patients with Parkinson's disease, essential tremor, dystonia, or other movement disorders who are not responding to standard medication treatments or are experiencing unwanted side effects of those treatments. During DBS surgery, electrodes are implanted within the brain to deliver electrical impulses. The stimulation offers patients relief from the tremors, rigidity, slowness of movement, and abnormal postures commonly seen in those conditions. The stimulation can be adjusted as a patient's condition changes over time. Deep brain stimulation technology is currently undergoing numerous revisions and upgrades which is making this therapy even more effective today than it was 20 years ago.

Learn more about Deep Brain Stimulation

How does DBS work?
An electrode implanted in the brain emits pulses of energy to block the abnormal activity in the brain which causes the symptoms. The success of deep brain stimulation surgery is directly related to finding the specific area in the brain for stimulation.
Who is a candidate for this surgery?
Any patient with increasing loss of control of movement may be a candidate. Generally speaking, patients must have failed an adequate trial of medications and meet some other pre-operative criteria as outlined below.
How is DBS surgery done?

Deep brain stimulation involves the implantation of a very thin lead containing four electrode contacts into a specific target area in the brain. The lead extends through a small opening in the skull and is connected to an extension wire. The extension wire is connected to an impulse generator or "pacemaker" which is implanted under the skin over the chest. Programming of the stimulation is easy and painless.

The surgeon is aided by computerized brain-mapping technology to find the precise location in the brain where nerve signals generate the tremors and other symptoms. Highly sophisticated imaging and recording equipment are used to map both the physical structure and the functioning of the brain.

The patient is awake during surgery to allow the surgical team to assess the patient's brain functions. While the electrode is being advanced through the brain, the patient does not feel any pain as the brain itself does not experience sensation. When the surgeon makes the small opening in the skull a local anesthetic is administered. The anesthetic used is similar to those used during a dental procedure to numb an area of the mouth.

Most patients are in the hospital for two to three days. A week or two later the stimulators are implanted below the collarbone. For this part of the procedure, the patient is placed under general anesthesia. The stimulators are turned on for the first time within a few weeks after implantation.

How effective is DBS?

In properly selected patients, deep brain stimulation is remarkably safe and effective, although not completely without risk. Beneficial effects have been demonstrated to last for several years. Patients who initially responded well to medications, but over time have developed sides effects, can experience between 60 to 80 percent improvement in such symptoms as tremor and slowness of movement. Patients on average report a 50 percent improvement in their walking and balance. Similarly, patients with involuntary movements (dyskinesia) due to their medications, experience over 80 percent reduction in their involuntary movements. Most patients are able to significantly reduce their medications following deep brain stimulation.

Regarding Parkinson's disease in particular, an important indicator of the effectiveness of any treatment is the duration of "on-time" without dyskinesia. This means the patient is mobile, can perform everyday tasks without experiencing the involuntary movements. On average, deep brain stimulation doubles the amount of "on-time" without dyskinesia.

As with any surgery, the procedure is not entirely risk free. There is approximately a two to three percent chance of brain hemorrhage that may be of no significance, or may cause paralysis, stroke, speech impairment or other major problems. This means that for every 100 patients who undergo surgery, two or three will experience a permanent or severe complication. However, this also means that many patients will have no complications. There is a 15 percent chance of a minor or temporary problem. Rarely, infections can occur. While treatment of infection may require removal of the electrode, the infections themselves have not caused lasting damage.

The electrode that is implanted in the brain, and the electrical systems that provide stimulation, are generally very well tolerated with no significant changes in brain tissue around the electrodes.

Who can be evaluated for DBS surgery?

Patients with Parkinson's Disease, essential tremor, dystonia or tremor due to multiple sclerosis, as well as other movement disorders with symptoms that cannot be controlled by medications can be evaluated as possible candidates for deep brain stimulation. In addition, patients who experience intolerable side effects from medication may also be candidates.

Deep brain stimulation has been successful in treating patients as young as 13 years of age. In general, surgery is performed on those under 75 years of age. However, each patient must be assessed individually concerning his or her stamina and overall health.

Does Medicare cover DBS?
This FDA approved procedure is covered by Medicare for the treatment of Parkinson's disease and Essential Tremor. However, this is not the case in all states. Some states' programs do not cover DBS surgery. Outside of Medicare, most insurance companies are also covering the costs of DBS surgery. To determine if Medicare in your state, or your individual insurance policy covers all or a portion of the costs, you would need to contact your benefit representative directly. If you need assistance with this, please do not hesitate to contact us.
Has DBS been approved by the Food and Drug Administration?
Yes. In January of 2002, the FDA approved deep brain stimulation for the treatment of Parkinson's disease. It had previously been approved for the treatment of Essential Tremor.
What happens after DBS?
A series of adjustments in the electrical pulse will be made over the next weeks or months. It is necessary for patients to be able to travel to a location where the stimulation of their implanted pacemakers can be adjusted following surgery. The first few follow-up visits should be to the center where the surgery was performed, but subsequent electrical programming can take place at another medical center.