Deep Brain Stimulation for Parkinson's Disease

Deep brain stimulation (or DBS) is a way to inactivate parts of the brain that cause the symptoms of Parkinson's diseaseand its associated symptoms, without destroying the brain. In deep brain stimulation, electrodes are placed in the thalamus (to treat essential tremor) or in the globus pallidus and subthalamic nucleus (for Parkinson's disease).

In deep brain stimulation, electrodes are connected by wires to a type of pacemaker device (called an impulse generator, or IPG) implanted under the skin of the chest, below the collarbone. Once activated, the device sends continuous electrical pulses to the target areas in the brain, blocking the impulses that cause tremors and other symptoms of PD. This has the same effect as thalamotomy or pallidotomy surgeries without actually destroying parts of the brain.

The IPG can easily be programmed using a computer that sends radio signals to the device. Patients are given special magnets or other devices so they can externally turn the IPG on or off.

Depending on use, the stimulator batteries may last three to five years. The IPG replacement procedure is relatively simple.Deep Brain Stimulation

How Does Deep Brain Stimulation Work?

Experts are unclear how deep brain stimulation works.

How Is Deep Brain Stimulation Performed?

Patients who are having stimulators placed on both sides of the brain may have their surgery divided into two parts, although it is becoming more common to place wires on both sides in one surgery.

There are several ways in which the electrodes are placed into the target areas of the brain. First these areas must be located. One way to locate the target areas is to rely only on a computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. While some surgeons stop there, most surgeons use an electrode recording technique to map and target the specific areas that they will need to reach.

Once the correct location is identified, the permanent electrodes are implanted. The loose ends are placed underneath the skin of the head and the incision is closed with sutures. The patient receives general anesthesia for the placement of the impulse generator in the chest and the positioning of extension wires that connect the electrodes to the impulse generators. The stimulator is usually not turned on for 4-6 weeks after the surgery. It may take several months until the simulators and medications are adjusted sufficiently for patients to receive adequate symptom relief. But, overall, DBS causes very few side effects.


What Is Subthalamic Nucleus Deep Brain Stimulation?

After extensive clinical trials, stimulation of the part of the brain called the subthalamic nucleus has been recognized as the most effective surgical treatment for the bradykinesia associated with Parkinson’s disease, improving symptoms including rigidity, slowness of movement, stiffness, and walking concerns.

Successful stimulation of the subthalamic nucleus allows patients to consistently reduce their medication, improving disease-related symptoms.

What Are the Advantages of Deep Brain Stimulation?

Deep brain stimulation has many advantages.

  • First, it does not require purposeful destruction of any part of the brain and therefore, has fewer complications than thalamotomy and pallidotomy.
  • In addition, the electrical stimulation is adjustable and can be changed as the person's disease changes or his or her response to medications change. No further surgery is necessary to make the adjustments.
  • Another significant advantage of deep brain stimulation relates to future treatments. Destructive surgery, such as thalamotomy or pallidotomy, may reduce the person's potential to benefit from future therapies. For example, future brain cell transplantation may prove helpful to people with Parkinson's disease. There is concern that a pallidotomy or thalamotomy may prevent patients from benefiting from brain cell transplantation. This would not be the case with deep brain stimulation, as the stimulator could be turned off.
  • Deep brain stimulation is a relatively safe procedure.
  • The procedure can treat most of the major symptoms of Parkinson's disease.
  • Daily living tasks and quality of life are also improved.
  • With subthalamic nucleus stimulation, medications can usually be reduced.
  • The stimulator can also be turned off at any time if deep brain stimulation is causing excessive side effects.

Possible disadvantages:

  • A small increased risk of infection; the implantation of any foreign object in the body carries that risk.
  • Additional surgery may be needed if the equipment stops working or for battery replacement.
  • The main risk is a small, but real, chance that a bleed will take place inside the brain at the time of the surgery.
  • Additional time on the part of the patient and health care provider to program device and adjust medications


How Effective Is Deep Brain Stimulation?

With deep brain stimulation, the vast majority of people (over 70%) experience a significant improvement of symptoms related to Parkinson's disease. Most people are able to reduce their medications.

What Kinds of Movement Problems Are Helped by Deep Brain Stimulation?

Deep brain stimulation of the subthalamic nucleus is effective for all major symptoms of Parkinson's disease, such as tremor, slowness of movement, rigidity, and problems with walking and balance. People bothered by involuntary movements such as dyskinesia often experience a reduction of these involuntary movements primarily because they are able to reduce their medications following surgery.

Deep brain stimulation of the globus pallidus is effective for a wide range of Parkinson's symptoms. It seems to be somewhat less effective for problems with walking and balance. Also, patients remain on the same average dose of medications following surgery.

Deep brain stimulation of the thalamus is only effective for tremor and rigidity. Consequently, deep brain stimulation of the thalamus is usually not performed for patients with Parkinson's disease.

What Are the Risks of Deep Brain Stimulation?

As with any surgical procedure, there are risks. There is a 2%-3% risk of a serious and permanent complication such as paralysis, changes in thinking, memory and personality, seizures, and infection. Talk to your doctor to see if these risks apply to you.

Is Deep Brain Stimulation Experimental?

No. Deep brain stimulation is not experimental. DBS of the thalamus was approved by the FDA for the treatment of Parkinson's disease and essential tremor in 1997. But, since stimulation of the thalamus is only effective for treating tremor and rigidity symptoms, it is not recommended for the treatment of Parkinson's disease. This is because even if a person currently only has tremor or rigidity, he or she will eventually develop other symptoms that would only be helped by stimulation of the subthalamic nucleus or globus pallidus. Therefore, stimulation of the subthalamic nucleus or globus pallidus is recommended.

Who Should Consider Deep Brain Stimulation?

There are many important issues to be addressed when considering deep brain stimulation. These issues should be discussed with a movement disorders expert or a specially trained neurologist. A movement disorders expert is someone who has trained specifically in movement disorders.

One of the most important criteria is that the person has had an adequate trial of medications. Surgery is not recommended if medications can adequately control the disease. However, surgery should be considered for people who do not achieve satisfactory control with drugs. Talk to your doctor to see if DBS is right for you.


Is Age a Factor in Deep Brain Stimulation?

Deep brain stimulation has been successful in treating people of different ages. However, each person should be assessed individually as to their stamina and overall health before considering surgery.

Where Should Deep Brain Stimulation Be Performed?

The first and most important recommendation is that the deep brain stimulation procedure be performed in a place where there is a multi-disciplinary team of experts. This means neurologists and neurosurgeons who have experience and specialized training in performing these types of surgeries. You want to pick a surgeon and facility that performs this type of surgery on a regular basis.

Will I Be Asleep During the Deep Brain Stimulation Procedure?

You will remain awake during most of the deep brain stimulation procedure. This allows the surgical team to interact with you when testing the effects of the stimulation. Small amounts of local anesthetic (pain-relieving medication) are given in sensitive areas. The vast majority of people experience minimal discomfort during the procedure.

What Should I Expect After Deep Brain Stimulation?

You may feel tired and sore but will be given medication and kept comfortable after your deep brain stimulation procedure. Also, you may have irritation or soreness around the stitches and pin sites.

As with any surgery, there are some guidelines and limitations that you should follow after DBS. Be sure to discuss these with your doctor and ask questions before surgery. Understanding what you will be experiencing and knowing what to expect afterward can help ease some of the natural anxiety that comes with any medical procedure.

When Will I Be Able to Go Home After the Deep Brain Stimulation Procedure?

The average hospital stay for deep brain stimulation surgery is 24 to 48 hours.

How Should I Care for the Surgical Area Once I Am Home?

  • Your stitches or staples will be removed seven to 10 days after surgery.
  • Each of the pin sites should be kept covered with band-aids until they are dry. These should be changed every day as necessary.
  • You will be able to wash your head with a damp cloth, avoiding the surgical area.
  • You may shampoo your hair the day after your stitches or staples are removed, but only very gently.
  • You should not scratch or irritate the wound areas.


Will I Have to Limit Activity Following Deep Brain Stimulation Surgery?

  • You should not engage in strenuous activities for two weeks after deep brain stimulation surgery. This includes housework and sexual activity.
  • You should not engage in heavy activities for four to six weeks after surgery. This includes jogging, swimming, or any physical education classes. Anything strenuous should be avoided to allow your surgical wound to heal properly. If you have any questions about activities, call your doctor before performing them.
  • You should not lift more than five pounds (a gallon of milk) for at least two weeks.
  • Depending on the type of work you do, you may return to work within four to six weeks.

Post Surgery Warning:

Call your doctor immediately if you experience any of the following symptoms after deep brain stimulation surgery:

  • Severe and persistent headaches
  • Bleeding from your incision
  • Redness or increased swelling in the area of the incision
  • Loss of vision
  • A sudden change in vision
  • A persistent fever or chills

Can I Use Electrical Devices?

While you should be able to use most electronic devices, you should be aware that:

  • Some devices, such as theft detectors and screening devices, like those found in airports, department stores and public libraries, can cause your neurotransmitter to switch on or off. Usually, this only causes an uncomfortable sensation. However, your symptoms could get worse suddenly. Always carry the identification card given to you. With this, you may request assistance to bypass those devices.
  • You will be able to use home appliances, computers, and cell phones. They do not usually interfere with your implanted stimulator.
  • You will be provided with a magnet to activate and deactivate your stimulator. This magnet may damage televisions, credit cards, and computer discs. Always keep it at least one foot away from these items.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Richard Senelick, MD on September 03, 2016



National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: "NINDS Deep Brain Stimulation for Parkinson's Disease Information Page."

We Move: "Deep Brain Stimulation."

University of Pittsburgh Department of Neurological Surgery: "Deep Brain Stimulation."

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