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Deep brain stimulation quiets tremors, eases movement in Parkinson's Disease

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Monday, January 9, 2023
Deep brain stimulation eases tremors, movement in Parkinson's Disease
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Parkinson's disease progressively hampers one's movements. But deep brain stimulation (i.e. electric pulses), can often get patients moving again.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Parkinson's disease disrupts the chemistry of the brain, progressively hampering a person's movements.

Deep brain stimulation, which uses electric pulses, can often get patients moving again.

"I was always the one that was drawing in the corners of my notebooks," recalls Kevin Convery of Northeast Philadelphia.

Kevin has been sketching or painting for as long as he can remember.

The Abington Township teacher has painted dozens of works over the years, often for book covers and illustrations.

Many are complex works based in mythology, requiring research and exacting work.

"One painting might take 3, 4 months," he says proudly.

However, for the past four years, Parkinson's disease made art and almost every task tough.

"Putting in my contact lens became difficult. Typing on a computer, I would hit keys 2 and 3 times," he says, adding, "shaving and brushing my teeth sometimes became a little more difficult."

Convery says his students, particularly those in junior high, noticed his movements.

"Kids would ask me 'Oh, are you nervous? Are you afraid of us? What's, what's, you know, what's going on with you?' "

Neurologist Dr. Molly Cincotta of Temple Health says that as Parkinson's slowly kills off cells in the brain stem, it cuts dopamine, an important regulator for movement.

"Not so much the strength of movement, but the speed of movement and the size of movement," says Dr. Cincotta.

That's why Parkinson's patients may have slow or unstable walking, mask-like facial expressions, tremors at rest, and blink less often.

As the disease progresses and the dopamine continues to drop ...

"Medication lasts for shorter and shorter periods of time, or you need higher and higher doses," she says.

But higher doses can trigger dyskinesia - wiggly movements. For these people, deep brain stimulation can be an option.

Electrodes implanted in the brain deliver a mild electrical current to the malfunctioning spots.

"The deep brain stimulator acts a little bit like a continuous amount of medication," she says.

"Stimulation can be extremely effective for tremor," Dr. Cincotta says.

She says DBS is best for the middle stages of Parkinson's, not the end of the line, when a patient can't tolerate major surgery.

The surgery itself is done under general anesthesia, and generally lasts 5-6 hours. Patients usually spend one night in the hospital.

Convery says he was "a zombie" for the first week: tired, and not feeling mentally sharp.

However, the success of DBS for a longtime friend gave him hope it would work for him.

The stimulator was activated a month after his surgery last summer.

"Suddenly, your hand doesn't shake. And you feel steady, a lot more energy," he says with a smile.

Everyday tasks are much easier now, and so is Kevin's art.

He's delighted with the result.

"I feel like I went back 10 years," Convery says.

Convery still takes medication, but a smaller dose than before.

He just completed a book cover, his first major work since the brain implant.