Deep brain stimulation involves surgically placing electrodes deep into the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease to relieve the stiffness, tremors and rigidity the illness causes. For many people, the treatment has immediate and life-changing results. The surgery is not always successful, however, a problem Greydon Gilmore, a PhD student, attributes in part to the placement of the electrodes. Gilmore’s research is made possible through the Parkinson Canada National Research Program and funded by The Lanka Charitable Foundation for $20,000 over 2 years.
“The target they (the surgeons) are trying to hit is very small, so the chances of you hitting it all the time is not very likely,” Gilmore says.
That’s why he’s creating software to improve the placement of the electrodes that, when connected to an implantable battery pack in people’s chests, activate an electrical field to stimulate damaged brain cells.
The electrical charge the battery pack and the electrodes create is what reduces or eliminates the movement symptoms people experience.
Gilmore’s 3D software combines with MRIs and other brain scans to help surgeons plan their surgery by mapping the brain to find the optimal point to place electrodes.
Once in the operating room, where Gilmore works with surgeons as a neuroelectrophysiologist, his software will detect the characteristic firing patterns of the region of the brain where the team wants to place the electrodes.
The surgeons will “get real-time feedback about when they are or are not in the nucleus,” he says.
After surgery, patients receive a CT scan which works with the software to show the surgical team whether the electrodes are in the right place.
If the electrodes are not within 1 millimetre of where they should be, Gilmore hopes the surgeons will be able to re-implant them. Currently, 20–30 percent of the patients in the clinic where Gilmore works don’t get a full response to the treatment.
Reimplantation should deliver better symptom control for more people, he says. The new software will also help technicians fine-tune the amount and frequency of the current their “pacemakers for the brain” deliver.
“I hope to speed up the process and improve the effectiveness of the deep brain stimulation device,” Gilmore says.
Gilmore, who has always been fascinated by the brain, began working on deep brain stimulation after meeting people with Parkinson’s disease when he was assessing people’s gaits to try to reduce freezing.
“I really enjoy working with deep brain stimulation because of the immediate impact it has on people’s lives,” he says.
“Just seeing the look on a patient’s face—that to me is very rewarding.”