Deep brain stimulation
Medically reviewed on December 30, 2017
Deep brain stimulation involves implanting electrodes within certain areas of your brain. These electrodes produce electrical impulses that regulate abnormal impulses. Or, the electrical impulses can affect certain cells and chemicals within the brain.
The amount of stimulation in deep brain stimulation is controlled by a pacemaker-like device placed under the skin in your upper chest. A wire that travels under your skin connects this device to the electrodes in your brain.
Deep brain stimulation is used to treat a number of neurological conditions, such as:
- Essential tremor
- Parkinson's disease
- Tourette syndrome
- Chronic pain
- Obsessive compulsive disorder
Deep brain stimulation is also being studied as an experimental treatment for major depression, stroke recovery, addiction and dementia. Clinical trials may be available to candidates for deep brain stimulation.
Why it's done
Deep brain stimulation is an established treatment for movement disorders, such as essential tremor, Parkinson's disease and dystonia, and more recently, obsessive-compulsive disorder.
This treatment is reserved for people who aren't able to get control of their symptoms with medications.
Although deep brain stimulation is generally safe, any type of surgery has the risk of complications. Also, the brain stimulation itself may cause side effects.
Deep brain stimulation involves creating small holes in the skull to implant the electrodes, and surgery to implant the device that contains the batteries under the skin in the chest. Complications of surgery may include:
- Bleeding in the brain
- Breathing problems
- Heart problems
Possible side effects after surgery
Side effects associated with deep brain stimulation may include:
- Hardware complications, such as an eroded lead wire
- Temporary pain and swelling at the implantation site
A few weeks after the surgery, the device will be turned on and the process of finding the best settings for you begins. Some settings may cause side effects, but these often improve with further adjustments of your device.
Possible side effects of stimulation
- Numbness or tingling sensations
- Muscle tightness of the face or arm
- Speech problems
- Balance problems
- Unwanted mood changes, such as mania and depression
How you prepare
First, weigh the pros and cons
Deep brain stimulation is a serious and potentially risky procedure. Even if you might be eligible for deep brain stimulation, you and your doctors must carefully weigh the risks and potential benefits of the procedure.
Next, preparing for surgery
Before surgery, you'll need medical tests to make sure that deep brain stimulation is a safe and appropriate option for you. You'll also need brain-imaging studies, such as an MRI, before the surgery, to map the areas of your brain to implant the electrodes.
What you can expect
During the surgery
In general, here's how surgery for deep brain stimulation works.
Brain surgery. For the brain surgery portion, your care team fits you with a special head frame to keep your head still during the procedure (stereotactic head frame). Then, they use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to map your brain and identify the area in your brain where they'll place the electrodes.
You'll be given a local anesthetic to numb your scalp before surgery, but you won't need an anesthetic in your brain itself because the brain has no pain receptors.
Your surgeon implants a thin wire lead with a number of contacts (electrodes) at the tips into a specific area of your brain. Or, one lead is implanted into each side of the brain (for a total of two leads). A wire runs under your skin to a pulse generator (neurostimulator) implanted near your collarbone.
In most cases, you'll remain awake and alert during the procedure so that your neurologist can talk to you to make sure the right areas of your brain are being stimulated. Your responses help your health care team place the lead in the correct place while minimizing side effects.
During surgery, both the neurologist and surgeon carefully monitor your brain to help ensure correct electrode placement.
Chest wall surgery. During the second portion of the surgery, which may occur on the same day or at a later time, the surgeon implants the part of the device that contains the batteries (pulse generator) under the skin in your chest, near your collarbone.
General anesthesia is used during this procedure. Wires from the brain electrodes are placed under your skin and guided down to the battery-operated pulse generator.
The generator is programmed to send continuous electrical pulses to your brain. You control the generator, and you can turn it on or off using a special remote control.
After the procedure
A few weeks after surgery, the pulse generator in your chest is activated in your doctor's office. The doctor can easily program your pulse generator from outside your body using a special remote control. The amount of stimulation is customized to your condition.
Stimulation may be constant, 24 hours a day, or your doctor may advise you to turn your pulse generator off at night and back on in the morning, depending on your condition. You can turn stimulation on and off with a special remote control that you'll take home with you. In some cases, your doctor may program the pulse generator to let you make minor adjustments at home.
The battery life of your generator varies with usage and settings. When the battery needs to be replaced, your surgeon will replace the generator during an outpatient procedure.
Deep brain stimulation involves implanting an electrode deep within your brain. The amount of stimulation delivered by the electrode is controlled by a pacemaker-like device placed under the skin in your chest. A wire that travels under your skin connects the device to the electrode.
Deep brain stimulation won't cure your disease, but it may help lessen your symptoms. If deep brain stimulation works, your symptoms will improve significantly, but they usually don't go away completely. In some cases, medications may still be needed for certain conditions.
Deep brain stimulation isn't successful for everyone. There are a number of variables involved in the success of deep brain stimulation. It's important to talk with your doctor before surgery about what type of improvement you can expect for your condition.