What Is Deep Brain Stimulation?

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
July 01, 2022
What Is Deep Brain Stimulation?

Sending electricity directly to parts of the brain can treat Parkinson’s disease and other illnesses. Here’s what you should know about deep brain stimulation.

You don’t think of yourself as being an electrical device, but you are. Your nervous system communicates through electricity. Our bodies use chemicals to produce electricity, the same electricity that powers your smartphone.

In several illnesses, the complex electrical exchanges that give us life go slightly off. Modern medicine is beginning to learn how to treat an electrical problem directly with electricity as an alternative to medication. Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is one example.

In Parkinson's disease, for example, nerve cells in the brain don't produce enough of a brain chemical called dopamine to trigger the right electrical response. A diagnosis of Parkinson’s is terrifying: The disease gets worse over time, and you don’t know which symptoms will appear or when.

Kay Marzotto couldn’t tie her shoes when she asked doctors in Boston for help and heard she probably had Parkinson’s. After two years of searching, she traveled from her home in Pittsfield, Mass., to Albany Medical College and undertook a DBS surgery. She now can hike and bowl, the hospital reports.


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What is deep brain stimulation (DBS)?

Deep brain stimulation is a procedure in which doctors implant electrodes into certain parts of your brain to generate electrical impulses. Each electrode is a thin, insulated wire the surgeon inserts through a small opening in the skull and steers into a specific spot in the brain. An extension wire, running under the skin of the head, neck, and shoulder, connects electrodes to a programmable generator. The generator is usually installed under the skin of the chest.

DBS can treat involuntary muscle contractions (dystonia), epilepsy, essential tremor, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), Parkinson's disease, and serious depression. More than 160,000 people with neurological conditions have been treated by DBS, the American Association of Neurological Surgeons reports.

When should you consider DBS?

You might consider DBS if your symptoms are interfering with your life because they can’t be controlled by medication, or the side effects are intolerable.

What are the advantages of DBS?

The placement of electrodes is customized for each patient. The amount of electricity — and hence stimulation — is also customized and adjusted over time to prevent side effects and make the treatment more effective. The device is always with you, day and night, offering continuous symptom control.

You can still participate in other treatments that might become available.

DBS is reversible — you can turn off the device.

What are the risks of DBS?

Electrodes usually don’t change the surrounding brain tissue, but the electrode can migrate. There is a 1 percent risk of brain hemorrhage, including stroke. The device may not help all symptoms, or it might malfunction. Some people get headaches, temporary tingling in their face or limbs, speech or vision problems, and lose their balance.

The research behind DBS, while relatively new, is beginning to accumulate. For example, a three-year multi-site clinical trial in 2012 concluded that the improvements in patients receiving DBS for Parkinson’s was stable. In 2014, surgical guidelines appeared for treating patients with OCD, in an overview concluding that DBS on both sides of the brain offered more improvement than a sham treatment (these treatments serve the function of a placebo in a test of medication, checking whether the patient improves simply because he feels hopeful, or because of the treatment itself).

Other research has tested various targets in the brain to help the worst cases of depression.

As with any surgery, the risks increase in people age 70 and older or if you have heart disease or high blood pressure.


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July 01, 2022

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN