Harvard Health Letter

Reduce Parkinson's symptoms

New research shows long-term benefits.

Deep brain stimulation (DBS) promptly improves movement problems in many people who have Parkinson's disease. Now, a study in the June 20 issue of Neurology finds that DBS continues to reduce symptoms for up to three years. It's no surprise to Dr. Alice Flaherty, co-director of the movement disorders DBS program at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. "The technique has been around for 20 years, and many patients have had more than 10 years of benefit," says Dr. Flaherty. "I've seen it change people's lives."

DBS uses a surgically implanted medical device similar to a pacemaker to deliver electrical stimulation to areas of the brain affected by Parkinson's disease that control movement. DBS blocks the nerve signals that cause tremor and other symptoms. Implantation requires two surgeries and then 3–10 office visits to ensure the electrodes are adjusted to their ideal settings. The results can be impressive. "DBS helps some symptoms very quickly, such as tremor. It also helps involuntary movements called dyskinesias. DBS helps rigidity and walking too, but the effect is slower." The device also helps many people to reduce their medications.

The best candidates for DBS are those who have no dementia and those whose Parkinson's medications dramatically help their movement. The procedure is covered by most insurance companies, including Medicare.

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