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More in News
To California for brain surgery, a local connection
RECOVERING — Tom Light, following his Deep Brain Stimulation surgery. Light suffers from benign essential tremors, a non-terminal disorder that causes symptoms similar to Parkinson's Disease. Light's tremors have largely stilled after undergoing DBS, a technique that installs a brain pacemaker, which sends electric currents through the part of the brain that controls the tremors.
PREPPING — Doctors help prepare Light for DBS surgery. During the procedure, micro-electrodes were implanted six inches into Light's brain and connected, through wires, to a device installed underneath his right breastplate that controls the electric current.
OXFORD HILLS — Up until last month, Tom Light led a very different life.
Light, a teacher at Paris Elementary School and a resident of West Paris, has a neurological disorder called benign essential tremor that causes involuntary shaking in his hands and head – similar to some symptoms of Parkinson's disease.
About two months ago, Light underwent Deep Brain Stimulation surgery – today, his tremors are under control for the first time in years.
In a strange coincidence, Lee Margolin, a member of the team that designed and registered the technology that makes DBS possible, is a Harrison resident, and the two men are casual acquaintances.
Light says his tremors have become worse over the past decade – everyday tasks like brushing his teeth, typing and even eating became difficult and frustrating.
"It was making it so that I couldn't carry any liquids without spilling them ... my voice tremored a lot, my head tremored and my hands were the worst; my left hand was totally out of it," he remembers.
"It's benign because it won't kill you," explains Light, "but it's a pain in the neck, so I don't like the word [benign] and essential? God only knows why they call it essential, because I could live without it."
Light tried drugs to address his condition but they either didn't work or had terrible side effects – some made him feel "like a zombie."
Light knew about DBS, but didn't pursue it until his daughter told him that the treatment had helped her friend's husband, who suffers from Parkinson's.
"It was amazing ... that sort of got my hopes on a realistic level that mine would stop," Light says.
Last summer, he flew out to California for an evaluation and doctors judged he was a good DBS candidate.
As Lee Margolin explains, DBS basically uses a pacemaker to direct an electric current through a specific, tiny section of the brain. The charge interferes with the brain's own electric current and overrides the tremors.
Margolin says that the technique was discovered largely by accident around the turn of the twentieth century.
"The very first discovery was a brain surgery where somebody nicked a vessel by mistake and cured their [the patient's] Parkinson's-like symptoms," Margolin relates.
After the initial discovery, the procedure was rationalized – researchers began to examine what was going on.
One of the early techniques used a wire that was heated with radio frequencies and used to kill the part of the brain that controlled tremors.
"If you were really good at it ... you could make that little sphere of dead stuff very small and put it right were you wanted to, so you turned off the right things, but didn't turn off the wrong things," Margolin explains.
Researchers then investigated other, less dangerous techniques.
The current "brain pacemaker," was designed in the late 1990s.
The pacemaker sends an electric current through micro-electrodes installed directly on the part of the brain that causes the tremors.
Margolin was a member of the team that designed the micro-electrodes while working at FHC Inc., a Brunswick-based neurosurgery products company.
He was also responsible for registering the micro-electrodes with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Like most things about the brain, researchers are still unclear how DBS works, Margolin says. Especially since interfering with the same circuit can make tremors better or worse.
"How can the same thing make it better and worse?" Margolin asks. "Right when you thought you had the answer to the question, we just realized the circuit is way more complex."
This past July, Light flew back to California for the DBS surgery.
During surgery, the micro-electrodes were implanted around six inches down from the top of Light's skull. "That's why its called deep brain stimulation," he says.
Wires run under Light's skin, from the electrodes to the device that controls the electrical current, installed underneath his right breastplate.
Light had to wait a month before technicians turned the device on, even though he was up and moving around days after the surgery.
Technicians determined what current strength stems the tremors. Light says it's currently set for three volts on the right side of his brain, and 2.5 on the left.
Once they turned the pacemaker on, the results were dramatic – the tremors finally eased.
Light was surprised that his head and voice tremors stilled – doctors told him not to expect improvement in that area.
"That was what everybody noticed first," he says, "my head and voice really calmed down."
There are other benefits as well – Light says he is a lot less tired now.
"The non-stop shaking would wear me out and also I think the trying to do things and control the shaking – I think both those things tire me out," he says.
From a casual glance, it's hard to tell Light ever suffered from his disorder, but he says he's unsure if the treatment fully worked – he still notices the tremors, even if they are so reduced.
"It's like I used to try and ignore it, but now I focus on it," he explains. "So I'm never quite sure how much better it is."
It's certain DBS is doing something to keep Light's tremors in check – as a test, he turned the device off one night and it look less than a minute for the tremors to return.
It's hard not to be amazed by DBS – Light even jokingly refers to himself as the "bionic man."
But Margolin is convinced the technique is only the beginning – compared to future possibilities, DBS looks outdated.
Light's device is already controlled remotely, but Margolin wonders if the entire thing could be installed directly in the brain and even powered with the brain's natural electric current.
"What if we could just get everything on board?" he asks.
"Have everything internally and small enough so it doesn't hurt where it is, but is sophisticated enough so it can send and take in useful information and do something practical, like stimulate."
TOP HOSPITAL — Tom Light poses in front of a building at Stanford University's hospital in Stanford, CA, before undergoing DBS surgery. Light says he chose to have the procedure in California because he has a lot of family in the Stanford area and knew the doctor there had extensive experience with DBS.