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Stanford Doctors Treat Parkinson's Disease Patients with Life-Changing Technology

Tuesday July 08, 2014

John Fowler

KUTV.com - At Stanford University Medical Center a stunning innovation is just beginning.

Parkinson's disease patient Martha Gardner, 56, of San Jose strode confidently out the hospital front doors.

"(It's) revolutionary, I mean this has made a huge difference in my life, I'm walking well and not falling," she said.

An implanted electronic stimulator in her chest wired to her brain controls tremors she said she's struggled with for years.

But deep brain stimulation is only the first part of the 'revolution."

In a third floor laboratory in the Movement Disorders Clinic, Parkinson's patient David Haygood, demonstrating turning his stimulator off. "Did you notice your tremors coming back a little on your chin?" asked neuroscientist Dr. Helen Bronte-Stewart, as she pointed to slight twitching of his lower jaw.

"No," Haygood answered. Suddenly, Haygood's right hand began shaking uncontrollably, spilling water from a small cup.

Haygood, 66, is one of six volunteers taking the next step in a clinical trial of an advanced type of brain stimulator.

"I've only turned this off a few times, always in this lab," said Haygood, who believes his tremors are caused by exposure to Agent Orange when he served as a combat photographer in Vietnam.

The new stimulator nicknamed "brain radio" is developed by Medtronic and tested by Bronte-Stewart's team.

"We can for the first time record the neural activity in the brain directly from the deep brain stimulator in somebody's chest," she said. 

Bronte-Stewart says she became interested in neurology as a ballet dancer in her native Scotland, fascinated by the hands-eyes-feet coordination of dancers and choreographers. 

Curiously, dance is a key element in Parkinson's disease treatment in which she now specializes at Stanford. "I've come full circle," she said.

Despite decades of research, doctors have only a sketchy ideas of how the brain works, but now using Medtronic's device they are for the first time opening a window into the human brain.

"I would think there will be developments that we don't really know about right now that will come from some of the things we find out as we do this research," said Bronte-Stewart.

Haygood began a standard assessment with eyes closed, palms up and reciting months backwards.

"December, November, October, September," he said and his hands began trembling.

Haygood's brain signals sent wirelessly to a computer reveal neurologic misfires, similar to an EKG of a diseased heart.

Those signals are analyzed to discover precisely what areas of the subthalamic nucleus in his brain are over-excited.

Subsequent devices will have internal algorithms to analyze those brain signals and send corrective pulses to the regions, much like the functioning of an implanted heart defibrillator.

Bronte-Stewart underscores the analogy to electrical misfires in heart disease.

She acknowledges hearts are more similar between people than are their brains, but that individual brains can reveal the progression of movement disorders by tracking the difference between hemispheres. 

She said her research now is where cardiac electrophysiology was 40 or 50 years ago. "How long before we understand the (brain) algorithms? I would hope a few years." she said.

Deep brain stimulation is already proving effective in treating tremor disorders, epilepsy, obsessive-compulsive behaviors and depression.

Doctors believe other brain problems, including mental illness, will reveal their unique neural misfires and be treated with a wire in the head.

Fowler, John. (8 July 2014). KUTV.com. Stanford doctors treat Parkinson's disease patients with life-changing technology. http://www.ktvu.com/news/news/local/stanford-doctors-treat-parkinsons-disease-patients/ngbwB/