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5 Myths About Deep Brain Stimulation

March 27, 2024

Decades ago, the biggest myth about deep brain stimulation (DBS) was that it was “experimental.” Since, that myth has been thoroughly busted. DBS is now standard procedure for certain movement disorders, each year helping thousands of patients reclaim activities they thought they’d lost forever.

Unfortunately, plenty of other myths about DBS still persist. And too often, they keep patients from this life-changing treatment.

So we asked an expert to set the record straight.

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Myth: DBS is only for movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease.

Fact: It’s now being used and studied for many other diagnoses, from OCD to Alzheimer’s.

DBS has long been celebrated as a treatment for movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease, essential tremor and dystonia. In recent years, it’s also gained FDA approval for use with epilepsy and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). And the list keeps growing.

“Researchers are studying if DBS could also be used for Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, depression and addiction,” says Patrick Senatus, MD, PhD, medical director of the DBS program at Ayer Neuroscience Institute.

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Myth: DBS destroys brain tissue.

Fact: It works by inserting tiny electrodes.

You know how a pacemaker uses electricity to regulate heartbeat? DBS is based on the same idea. It involves placing tiny electrodes in the brain, then sending electrical signals to keep nearby neurons firing properly. This reduces the neurological misfires caused by certain disorders, and with it, symptoms.

The procedure itself is painless and safe: “The surgical side of DBS is usually very straightforward. We use high tech navigation software and tools to get each electrode to a very precise, accurate location,” says Dr. Senatus.

Myth: You have to be awake for the DBS implantation — and you have to shave your head.

Fact: For many patients, both are optional.

Many DBS centers, including Hartford Hospital, perform asleep procedures too. As for your hair, if you opt for shaving — the most sterile method — you’ll only lose a few strands in the tiny, discreet spots on the scalp where incisions go. (Think: smaller than a dime.)

For most people, even that’s optional. “We’ve developed techniques to do the implantation without shaving the hair,” says Dr. Senatus.

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Myth: With Parkinson’s disease, DBS is only for advanced stages.

Fact: Just a few years after diagnosis, it may be an option.

When DBS first came on the scene, it was reserved for patients with advanced Parkinson’s. But that’s no longer the case.

“You don’t have to suffer for decades before you try DBS,” says Dr. Senatus. “If you’ve had a Parkinson’s diagnosis for about four years, and you’ve tried medications without adequate relief, then in general you would be a candidate.”

Myth: DBS doesn’t work.

Fact: Most patients experience life-changing benefits.

Not everyone is a candidate for DBS, depending on their symptoms, brain anatomy and other factors. But for those who are, the procedure is often a turning point.

“We’ve returned people to doing activities they loved — triathlons, golf, riding motorcycles. But some of the most gigantic benefits are in basic activities, like being able to feed themselves again, and walk somewhere without assistance,” says Dr. Senatus. “DBS can make a robust difference in quality of life.”