Neurosurgeon Michael C. Park, MD, PhD, has very little room for error—only a half-millimeter, in fact.
Park oversees and conducts a procedure called deep brain stimulation, also known as neuro-modulation. During the procedure, an electrode is implanted inside the brain of those with Parkinson’s disease or other neurological disorders. The electrode, connected by tiny wire to a pacemaker-like device implanted in the patient’s chest, delivers electrical stimulation that regulates abnormal electrical signals originating in the brain.
The procedure is effective at relieving the debilitating tremors, slowed movement and other symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, but only if that electrode is placed in exactly the right spot—within a half-millimeter of the source of the abnormal activity.
Park considers himself fortunate to be employed by University of Minnesota Health, which has one of the world’s few high-intensity magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) devices. The advanced MRI can scan and define tiny structures in the brain, Park said. This helps Park place his deep brain stimulation electrodes in the brain with a high degree of accuracy.
Of course, a detailed imaging doesn’t guarantee success. For that reason, Park actually uses the electrode to listen to the electrical “noise” of the brain during placement of the electrodes.
“Different parts of the brain have a certain signature, a firing characteristic,” Park said. “It all sounds like static, but to a trained ear, it can serve as a guide. Park compares crossing the boundaries of certain brain structures to traveling between two countries that speak two different languages.
Deep brain stimulation has long been recognized as an effective treatment for Parkinson’s, and research keeps finding new applications for the electrodes: essential tremor, dystonia and obsessive-compulsive disorder can all be treated by the procedure, Park said. There are indications it may also prove to be helpful in alleviating symptoms of depression, and restoring memory in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
The minimally invasive procedure carries relatively little risk, Park said. There are no pain receptors in the brain, so general anesthesia isn’t required when inserting the electrodes, and the incision into the skull is tiny. During the procedure, the patient remains awake so the electrical activity of the brain can be recorded and mapped.
Deep brain stimulation patients also get access to a multi-disciplinary team of University of Minnesota Health experts, including renowned neurologists treating movement disorders, Park said.
“Patients who see me actually get access to a whole team working behind the scenes—neurophysiologists, imaging center researchers and specialists, biomedical engineers and basic scientists developing new advances. And all of us are working for the same goal: making this operation safer and more effective for our patients.”“There’s a large group of University of Minnesota scientists looking into the whole field of deep brain stimulation and neuro-modulation,” Park said. “There are some exciting possibilities on the horizon.”