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Deep brain stimulation for Parkinson's disease

Created date

March 2nd, 2018
Graphic depiction of a brain.

Graphic depiction of a brain.

Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder, affects 1% of people over 60 in the U.S., according to the Parkinson’s Foundation. While that number may seem low, the disease is considered to be fairly common, and prevalence is expected to rise.

The disease affects neurons in the brain that produce dopamine. A lack of this chemical (a neurotransmitter) produces symptoms such as tremors, rigid limbs, slowed movements, and trouble with balance. The cause is unknown. Patients with the disease have shorter lifespans than people without the disease.

Currently, treatment involves medications to control symptoms, but that hasn’t been shown to extend the lifespan of Parkinson’s disease patients. Now researchers have found that deep brain stimulation (DBS), may in fact be able to improve survival.

DBS is not new. It has been used for years to treat Parkinson’s patients who no longer respond to medication. It has been shown to significantly improve motor function in many patients. Electrodes are surgically placed into certain areas of the brain, and then a battery similar to a pacemaker battery is implanted into the abdomen or collarbone area. The battery delivers electrical impulses to brain tissue, which may help stimulate dopamine production. 

Survival rates

The researchers from Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital in Illinois found that patients who received DBS had modest but significant survival rates compared to patients who received medication only. They analyzed data from 611 Parkinson’s disease patients who had DBS and 611 matched patients who didn’t. The results showed that DBS patients lived an average of 6.3 years after the DBS surgery, whereas non-DBS patients lived an average of 5.7 years after the date they would have had DBS surgery. 

The researchers acknowledge this modest difference, but they point out that past research shows that DBS patients have a better quality of life than non-DBS patients. They also acknowledge the study’s limitations, as the population was all male, and it is difficult to assess underlying health conditions that may have affected lifespan. More research is needed to determine whether DBS actually slows the disease process or helps to control related symptoms that can contribute to death.