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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Book: Deep Brain Stimulation

Jamie Talan's Deep Brain Stimulation: A New Treatment Shows Promise In The Most Difficult Cases is the first book to offer a popular look at DBS, one of the more exciting emerging treatments in neurology and psychiatry.

Deep Brain Stimulation is not a textbook and the depth of scientific detail is kept pretty low, but the breadth of the material is good. Talan reviews the many kinds of disorders for which DBS has been trialled, from the early 1990s when it was used in Parkinson's disease up to the past five years where it's been tried for everything from epilepsy, depression and Tourette's Syndrome up to lifting patients out of persistent vegetative states (maybe).

Unfortunately, Talan doesn't discuss the controversial history of the first era of human brain stimulation, including the morally murky work of Robert G. Heath at Tulane University in the 1960s. She mentions Tulane once in passing but more detail would have been welcome, if only because it's a rather spicy tale.

The book's most engaging passages are the stories of individual patients. There's the man with Parkinson's who experienced amazing benefits from DBS, and who was so keen to keep them that he didn't tell doctors about the infection which developed a few weeks after surgery, in case they took the electrode out. After literally keeping the infected site under his hat for a few days, it progressed to a brain abscess, and he nearly died. Happily, he not only survived but was able to get the electrodes reimplanted.

Then there's the most moving case, that of the woman suffering from severe OCD and depression, who was given experimental DBS for the former condition. She died by suicide several months later, but said in her suicide note that the DBS had worked - her OCD symptoms were gone. Her depression was as bad as ever, though, and this is what led her to suicide. She wanted people to know that deep brain stimulation helped her, and didn't want her death to go down in the records as a mark against it.

The precursor to DBS was ablative neurosurgery - destroying particular parts of the brain in order to relieve symptoms. Talan describes its use in movement disorders such as Parkinson's, but she glosses over the history of "psychosurgery", the use of surgery to treat mental illness. People using DBS in psychiatry often prefer not to talk about psychosurgery - it's not exactly good PR. But clearly it is relevant. For all its faults, psychosurgery did seem to help some patients, which is why it's still used today in rare cases, although DBS may soon replace it.

DBS for depression and OCD usually target the same prefrontal white matter pathways that psychosurgery severed, so scientifically, psychosurgery has lessons for DBS. The ethical issues overlap too. Although DBS is reversible, unlike brain lesioning, it carries the same risks of serious complications like infection or brain bleeding. And there's the same question of whether seriously mentally ill people can give informed consent.

The book's strongest chaper is the last, which covers the ethical and practical difficulties of DBS. The danger is that enthusiastic doctors with no experience of the procedure, encouraged by the tales from other hospitals, might start doing it inappropriately. There's also a risk that patients or their families might volunteer for DBS prematurely or have impossibly high expectations. The initial results have been very promising, but there have been no large placebo-controlled trials so far (except in some movement disorders). And even with the best surgeons, in most disorders the response rate seems to hover around the 50-60% mark. Talan warns that DBS risks being a victim of its own hype. That's an important message.

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