Patient Story: Gerry Zylka

When medication stopped working, our team suggested deep brain stimulation (DBS) to treat Gerry Zylka's Parkinson's disease. See the remarkable results.

Offering hope to certain movement disorders patients when other treatments fail, our Parkinson’s and Movement Disorders Program provides deep brain stimulation (DBS) surgery as an option for select patients. DBS is a complicated procedure that requires a skilled and knowledgeable surgical team and highly specialized equipment.

Highly Specialized Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) Surgery

DBS was approved for the treatment of tremor in Parkinson’s disease in 1997. Several thousand Parkinson’s patients in the United States have now had the procedure. For most, DBS has vastly improved their quality of life.

DBS involves implanting a thin wire, or lead, containing four electrode contacts into a specific target area in the brain. Different areas of the brain are targeted for different diseases. The lead extends through a small opening in the skull and is connected to an extension wire. The extension wire is connected to a pulse generator or “pacemaker” that is implanted under the skin in the chest. This generator, also called a neurostimulator, is programmable from the outside of the body after the procedure is completed.

Computerized brain-mapping technology aids the surgeon in finding 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.

To allow the surgical team to assess brain functions, patients need to be awake during surgery. A local anesthesia is used to numb the scalp while the surgeon makes the small opening in the skull. Due to the unique nature of the human brain and its inability to generate pain signals, patients experience no pain while the electrodes are being placed in the brain.

Surgery to implant the electrodes requires most patients to stay in the hospital for two or three days. At a later date, usually within a week, the neurostimulator is implanted in the patient’s chest below the collarbone during a same-day surgery procedure. General anesthesia is used for this procedure. Within a week or two, the patient will return and the neurostimulators will be turned on for the first time.

Care After DBS Surgery

Over the next weeks or months after the neurostimulator is first activated, a series of adjustments in the electrical pulse will be made. For this reason patients need to be able to travel to a location where the stimulation of their implanted devices can be adjusted. The first few follow-up visits should be to the place at the facility where the surgery was performed. After that, electrical programming can take place at another medical facility if a specialist with the knowledge and equipment is there.

Benefits of DBS Surgery

The stimulation of the electrodes implanted within the brain from DBS surgery offers patients relief from many symptoms of PD including tremor, rigidity, slowness of movement and stiffness. It also offers relief from the tremor associated with ET (also called familial tremor) as well as the often painful muscle contractions associated with dystonia. The stimulation can be adjusted as a patient's condition changes over time.

Improved Alternative to Thalamotomy & Pallidotomy

DBS is an improved alternative to two surgeries often-performed previously, a thalamotomy and a pallidotomy. These surgeries involved destroying small parts of the brain within structures called the thalamus and the globus pallidus (GPi). DBS no longer makes it necessary to destroy even small parts of the brain.

DBS Surgery Risks

As with any surgery, the procedure is not risk free. There is about a 1 percent to 3 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, one to three will experience a permanent or severe complication. However, this also means that most patients will have no serious complications.

There is a 15 percent chance of a minor or temporary problem that resolves quickly or over a short period of time. Rarely, infections can occur. While treatment of infection may require removal of the electrode, the infections themselves have not caused lasting damage. The device can be implanted again after the infection clears. The electrode that is implanted in the brain and the electrical systems that provide stimulation are generally very well accepted by the brain with no significant changes in brain tissue around the electrodes. The neurostimulators implanted in the chest that produce the stimulation have a limited life span and will require future surgery to replace them.

Candidates for Deep Brain Stimulation

The Parkinson’s and Movement Disorders team meets weekly to review patient cases, including patients who may be candidates for the deep brain stimulation procedure. Patient selection is based on a thorough analysis of their medical situation and needs, as well as the best evidence available in medical literature and our extensive experience in performing DBS procedures.

Possible candidates for DBS are:

  • Patients with Parkinson's disease, essential tremor and dystonia who experience movement-related symptoms that cannot be controlled by medications. 
  • Patients who have had an adequate and reasonable trial of medications (includes ET, dystonia and PD)
  • Patients who experience intolerable side effects from medication may also be candidates. 

New uses for DBS are being investigated, including symptom control for patients with epilepsy, Tourette’s syndrome, depression and chronic pain syndromes.

DBS has been successful in treating patients as young as 13 years old. In general, surgery is performed on patients under 75 years old, but this is not a firm guideline. Each patient must be assessed individually in regard to his or her stamina and overall health.

Thanks to significant innovation in DBS therapy, we offer three FDA-approved DBS devices. You and your movement disorder neurologist will thoroughly discuss the differences between the three options and determine which one meets your needs.

Effectiveness of DBS

While results vary from patient to patient, DBS is remarkably safe and effective in properly selected patients. The beneficial effects of symptom control have been demonstrated to last for several years.

  • Patients with essential tremor may experience an 80 to 100 percent reduction in their tremors.
  • Patients with PD who initially responded well to medications but over time have developed side effects may experience a 60 to 80 percent improvement in symptoms such as tremor and slowness of movement.
  • On average, patients report a 50 percent improvement in their walking and balance.
  • Patients with involuntary movements (dyskinesia) due to their medications experience a greater than 80 percent reduction in their involuntary movements.
  • Most patients are able to significantly reduce their medications following deep brain stimulation.
  • On average, DBS doubles the amount of "on-time" without dyskinesia. An important indicator of the effectiveness of any treatment for people with PD, in particular, is the duration of "on-time" without dyskinesia. This means the patient is mobile and can perform everyday tasks without experiencing the involuntary movements.
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