Surgery for essential tremor gets "first major upgrade" with new tech

Photo: KOMO News

SEATTLE--Leonora Sleeter has suffered from essential tremor for 17 years. The movement disorder triggers uncontrollable shaking, making everyday tasks a challenge.

"The major thing is eating," Sleeter said. "And writing. I can't really write at all at this point. And playing my instruments."

Leonora was a professional oboe player with an impressive resume. Essential tremor makes it hard to pour a glass of water, let alone play a melody.

One treatment for ET is a surgery called deep brain stimulation. An electrode is implanted in the brain, disrupting the area sending tremor signals to the body. While the surgery has been around for two decades, Neurosurgeon Dr. Ryder Gwinn says it just got its first major upgrade, with technology that helps them better pinpoint the part of the brain they want to shut down.

"If we shut down other nearby structures, we can cause side effects. We can cause pulling, tingling or balance problems or speech problems if we start to stimulate other pathways that are nearby," Dr. Gwinn said. He explained with the newer level of programming, they can steer the current and avoid those other areas.

The new hardware allows Leonora's treatment to be personalized in the doctor's office, then she can adjust it at home with an app.

Physician Assistant Martha Short sent Leonora home at a lower level of voltage, with parameters on how much to raise it. "In a couple days, if she doesn't get side effects, she'll know how to increase her voltage by a little bit, until she gets to that sweet spot," Short said.

It's remarkable technology for a woman who lost the ability to control her own body, let alone make music.

"I've tried it a little," she said, referring to her oboe. "But it was so frustrating that I just couldn't play."

Moments after fine tuning her treatment, Leonora played a short tune on the oboe for the first time in years.

"I'm elated. Absolutely elated," she said.

Doctors at the Swedish Neuroscience Institute are only using the new hardware during DBS surgery for essential tremor right now. But Dr. Gwinn said if it continues to work well, it could expand to DBS surgery in Parkinson's patients.

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