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Brain Surgery Proven Effective for Symptoms of Parkinson's Disease

There is new hope for many patients suffering from the progressive neurological disorder called Parkinson's disease. A recent study by a team of German doctors reports improvement in advanced Parkinson's symptoms after patients undergo a surgical form of brain stimulation. VOA's Melinda Smith has more on the procedure and how it might help patients in the early stage of the disease.

The most visible sign of Parkinson's disease is the tremor. It often begins in one hand, even when that hand is not in use. As the disease progresses, so do a host of other symptoms, says Neurologist David Charles of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee:

"Tremor, stiffness in the muscles, slow movement, difficulty with walking and balance, and then in approximately 20 percent, potentially more, people also have memory difficulties associated with Parkinson's disease," said Dr. Charles.

The World Health Organization estimates that four to six million people suffer from Parkinson's disease. But that figure is expected to increase dramatically as many developed countries report increases in their elderly populations. In the United States, one and a half million Americans have been diagnosed with the disease.

Parkinson's disease typically begins in people aged 60 to 65. For the first few years medication is usually effective. By the time the disease reaches the later stage, medication often fails to control physical disabilities that affect a patient's quality of life.

Patients with advanced Parkinson's who underwent a surgery called Deep Brain Stimulation showed a 25 percent improvement in their symptoms, compared to those who took only the medication. Electrodes are placed in an area of the brain known as the subthalamic nucleus, which often triggers the overactivity. Electrodes are connected to a pacemaker inserted in the chest. They send out a signal to calm the tremors and muscle stiffness.

Dr. David Charles explains. "The stimulation therapy somehow -- and this is not clearly understood -- interrupts that overactivity and therefore reduces the symptoms of Parkinson's disease."

Evan Stern had deep brain stimulation four years ago He says, "After the operation everything was alleviated to some degree -- some completely -- my tremor's gone completely."

The team of neurologists at Vanderbilt University is beginning to use deep brain stimulation among some patients in the early stage. Dr. Charles says doing stimulation therapy early might just slow down the illness before it is too late:

"There's good evidence that for at least five and now seven years after surgery, patients continue to receive benefit,” says Dr. Charles. “But when applied in the late stages of the disease, it really helps with the symptoms but it does not offer a cure, nor does it stop the progression of the disease."

Research into deep brain stimulation in the early stages has begun with just a few patients. It will be expanded to include several hundred in the larger follow-up study.