The Brain Electric: Easing the symptoms of Parkinson's Disease - WNCT

The Brain Electric: Easing the symptoms of Parkinson's Disease

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DURHAM, N.C. -

John Hutchens lives with a severe form of Parkinson's Disease and is on a daily regimen of powerful prescription drugs. While the drugs are effective, they also come with some pretty serious side effects. 

"I had reached the point where the medication had reached its maximum effectiveness and was starting to have greater side effects than benefits," Hutchens said.

About six weeks ago Hutchens underwent a very risky procedure at Duke Medical Center. Neurosurgeon Dr. Dennis Turner implanted two electrodes deep in his brain in order to stimulate it with a low voltage current. 9 On Your Side tagged along for a follow-up visit as Dr. Turner increased the voltage.

The 62-year-old first noticed some startling physical problems about six years ago.

"My speech had been affected. My balance had been affected. I just thought I was getting old," said Hutchens.

A visit to the neurologist resulted in the Parkinson's diagnosis. 

Hutchens said, "The classic Parkinson's symptom is a trembling like this. I never had that. I had what is called the Parkinson's freeze. I can't walk. My body is stiff and I ask my legs to move and they don't move. And that was difficult." 

Because of the severity of his case, hutchens was given the choice of the surgery known as deep brain stimulation or d-b-s. The two electrodes are powered by a battery implanted in the chest and the entire operation is done while the patient is awake. 

"I was sedated in the sense that I was relaxed, but I was awake. I had to be awake because they had to tell whether they were hitting the right spots and not hitting the wrong spots," Hutchens said. 

The surgery has become pretty standard. It's been around for 15 years or so now. But, as Dr. Turner explains, not everyone benefits from it.

He said, "If somebody, for example, had a different kind of Parkinson's, that didn't respond at all to the medicine, the surgery wouldn't help. It tends to smooth out the body's response to the medicines and make them much stronger."

After the adjustment, the change in Hutchens' step is virtually instantaneous. Both he and his wife say it's like night and day.

"He came in off his meds and normally he can't function at all without his meds. He can't walk or he would fall if he tried to walk. He'd freeze. On the small dose of the voltage he came in with, he could sort of stumble along a little bit, but when Dr. Turner turned it up today it was a huge difference. It's almost as if he didn't have Parkinson's," Rosalie Hutchens said.

John said, "When I turn while walking, that was the most difficult for me. I was doing pirouettes in the hallway. No hesitation. I could feel the difference, my muscles loosening. I could walk and it felt good."

The surgery won't eliminate the medications, but it will lower the dosage.

"This kind of stimulation is primarily helping motion. Things like walking, moving your arms and legs, stiffness and tremors sometimes. People with Parkinson's have a number of other symptoms that the meds help with so it's very important to have both together. We rarely try to get people off their meds completely," Dr. Turner said.

As for Hutchens...he's just happy to be walking and feeling whole again. 

"Now I can do things I couldn't do before. I feel like I'm a normal person now. It's been great," he said.

 

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