Surgery for Parkinson’s Disease

Before the discovery of levodopa, surgery was an option for treating PD.  Studies in the past few decades have led to great improvements in surgical techniques, and surgery is again considered for people with PD for whom drug therapy is no longer sufficient.

Pallidotomy and Thalamotomy

The earliest types of surgery for PD involved selectively destroying specific parts of the brain that contribute to PD symptoms.  Surgical techniques have been refined and can be very effective for the motor symptoms of PD.  The most common lesion surgery is called pallidotomy.  In this procedure, a surgeon selectively destroys a portion of the brain called the globus pallidus.  Pallidotomy can improve symptoms of tremor, rigidity, and bradykinesia, possibly by interrupting the connections between the globus pallidus and the striatum or thalamus.  Some studies have also found that pallidotomy can improve gait and balance and reduce the amount of levodopa people require, thus reducing drug-induced dyskinesias.  Another procedure, called thalamotomy, involves surgically destroying part of the thalamus; this approach is useful primarily to reduce tremor. 

Because these procedures cause permanent destruction of small amounts of brain tissue, they have largely been replaced by deep brain stimulation for treatment of PD.  However, a new method using focused ultrasound from outside the head is being tested because it creates lesions without the need for surgery.

Deep Brain Stimulation

Deep brain stimulation, or DBS, uses an electrode surgically implanted into part of the brain, typically the subthalamic nucleus or the globus pallidus.  Similar to a cardiac pacemaker, a pulse generator (battery pack) that is implanted in the chest area under the collarbone sends finely controlled electrical signals to the electrode(s) via a wire placed under the skin.  When turned on using an external wand, the pulse generator and electrodes painlessly stimulate the brain in a way that helps to block signals that cause many of the motor symptoms of PD.  DBS is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is widely used as a treatment for PD.

DBS can be used on one or both sides of the brain.  If it is used on just one side, it will affect symptoms on the opposite side of the body.  DBS is primarily used to stimulate one of three brain regions:  the subthalamic nucleus, the globus pallidus interna, or the thalamus.  Stimulation of either the globus pallidus or the subthalamic nucleus can reduce tremor, bradykinesia, and rigidity.  Stimulation of the thalamus is useful primarily for reducing tremor. 

People who initially responded well to treatment with levodopa tend to respond well to DBS.  While the motor function benefits of DBS can be substantial, it usually does not help with speech problems, "freezing," posture, balance, anxiety, depression, or dementia.

One advantage of DBS compared to pallidotomy and thalamotomy is that the electrical current can be turned off using a handheld device.  The pulse generator also can be externally programmed.

Individuals must return to the medical center frequently for several months after DBS surgery in order to have the stimulation adjusted very carefully to give the best results.  After a few months, the number of medical visits usually decreases significantly, though individuals may occasionally need to return to the center to have their stimulator checked.  Currently, the battery for the pulse generator must be surgically replaced every three to five years.  DBS does not stop PD from progressing, and some problems may gradually return.  DBS is not a good option for everyone.  It is generally appropriate for people with levodopa-responsive PD who have developed dyskinesias or other disabling "off" symptoms despite drug therapy.  It is not generally an option for people with memory problems, hallucinations, severe depression, poor health, or a poor response to levodopa.  DBS has not been demonstrated to be of benefit for "atypical" parkinsonian syndromes such as multiple system atrophy, progressive supranuclear palsy, or post-traumatic parkinsonism, which also do not improve with Parkinson’s medications. 

As with any brain surgery, DBS has potential complications, including stroke or brain hemorrhage.  These complications are rare, however.  There is also a risk of infection, which may require antibiotics or even replacement of parts of the DBS system.


Reference: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

Last updated: May 4, 2017

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