Eureka Moment

From the Summer 2016 edition of Vanderbilt Medicine Magazine

A decade before the FDA’s 1997 initial approval of deep brain stimulation (DBS) therapy, the technique was developed in Grenoble, France. Alim-Louis Benabid, M.D., Ph.D., and Pierre Pollak, M.D., utilized the effect of high-frequency stimulation on a patient’s tremor during an ablative brain surgery while using an electrode to identify the target area. The patient was sedated, but awake, as is often the case in brain surgeries. Instead of delivering 50Hz as he normally did, Benabid decided to increase the frequency to just below 100 Hz—and something unexpected happened. The patient’s tremor stopped. Benabid repeated the experiment with other brain surgery patients and observed the same results.

Benabid performed the first DBS surgery in 1987. This time, he left the electrode inside his patient’s brain. After retesting and confirming stimulation was effective in suppressing tremor, he implanted the wire under the patient’s skin and linked it to a battery surgically placed in the patient’s chest. During this same time frame, Mahlon R. DeLong, M.D., a neurologist at Emory University School of Medicine, had been doing experiments in animals to better identify the area of the brain responsible for uncontrollable tremor. Based on DeLong’s work, Benabid, who had been implanting the electrodes in the thalamus of his patients’ brain, instead began placing them in the subthalamic nucleus and achieved better results for other symptoms of Parkinson’s disease in addition to tremor.

By the mid-1990s, a clinical trial for DBS surgery was underway in the United States.