For patients with few options, deep brain stimulation is a lifesaver, treating neurological conditions like tremors and fluctuations in motor skills.

You may not have heard of deep brain stimulation (DBS), but this cutting-edge procedure treats a wide spectrum of neurological conditions.

DBS can be used to treat Parkinson’s disease, essential tremor (shaking unrelated to Parkinson’s), dystonia (involuntary muscle contractions) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). DBS is gaining additional attention from recent studies on other benefits it may have, although it hasn’t yet been approved to treat other illnesses or disorders.

What is deep brain stimulation?

DBS is a surgical procedure that implants electrodes into specific areas of your brain. A pacemaker-like device is then placed under the skin of the chest, which emits electrical impulses that regulate or block electrical signals within the targeted area.

DBS doesn’t damage the brain tissue; it blocks abnormal signals that cause impaired motor control. Most candidates for deep brain stimulations are patients whose symptoms cannot be controlled by medication.

What conditions will DBS treat?

DBS is approved for Parkinson’s disease, essential tremor, dystonia and, most recently, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

In Parkinson’s disease, DBS significantly reduces tremor, motor fluctuations and dyskinesias. In a recent DBS study, essential tremors were reduced in 80 percent of the cases. In dystonia, the surgery helps control the involuntary movements associated with these disorders.

Studies are being conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of DBS in battling a myriad of other conditions, such as epilepsy, memory loss related to Alzheimer’s disease, depression and addiction, but more studies need to be done before its effectiveness in treating these issues can be determined.

 What is the surgical procedure?

An MRI and CT scan will be ordered to map the brain and identify the exact area to target. The subthalamic nucleus and globus pallidus internus are the most common areas for DBS because they relay sensory and motor signals within the brain.

There are two options for DBS surgery. The first involves implanting electrodes into the deep structures of the brain. This can be accomplished while you are sedated but awake, allowing the neurologist to interact with you to make sure the electrodes are properly placed and also to make sure there are minimal side effects.

If you’re nervous about being awake during the procedure, the second option uses real-time MRI guidance and allows you to be asleep when the electrodes are implanted. The USC Deep Brain Stimulation Center of USC Neurosciences at Keck Medicine of USC is the only center in Southern California to offer this technique.

After about two weeks, a pacemaker-like device will be placed beneath the skin of your chest that will connect to the electrodes and sends electrical signals to the targeted areas in the brain. This second procedure is an outpatient surgery, meaning you’ll go home the same day.

After a few weeks of recovery, the neurologist will use a DBS programmer to generate a pulse of electronic stimulation customized for your condition. Stimulation can be administered around the clock or turned on and off as needed. Depending on the condition, you might be allowed to make minor adjustments at home.

To find out if you are a candidate for deep brain stimulation, consult our world-renowned specialists at the USC Neurology Services at Medicine of USC.

If you are in the Los Angeles area and are looking for exceptional care from some of the top neurologists and memory specialists in the world, schedule an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or by visiting http://neuro.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment/.

By Heidi Tyline King