Neurosurgeon Gordon Baltuch didn't just wanted to talk to me about deep brain stimulation – the surgery he helped pioneer in this country to treat symptoms of Parkinson's Disease and other movement disorders – when we met Thursday, he wanted to show me. Actually he wanted me to watch and listen to a video of the operation.
That's because the six-foot, five-inch tall surgeon uses his ears as much as his eye to find the Rice Crispy sized masses in his patients brain where he will implant electrodes to treat their tremors, muscle stiffness, and other major symptoms of Parkinson's. Deep brain stimulation, or DBS, doesn't cure Parkinson's, but it helps with those symptoms that disrupt or destroy patient's lives.
Patients are sedated, but awake for the surgery so Baltuch and his team can identify the correct location for the electrodes. He's aiming for either the subthalamic nucleus or the globus pallidus in the brain's basal ganglia system.
Using local anesthesia an incision is made along the scalp and a dime-sized hole is drilled in the middle of the patient's skull. Baltuch feeds an electrode wire slowly through the patient's brain. He uses both x-rays and audio signals — Baltuch literally listens to the signals given off by the brain cells — to find the right spot.
The surgeon said he can recognize different brain cells by the sound they give off.
"It's like a song and you begin to recognize the song over time," he said. "Your ear is a very good spectral analyzer."
At Pennsylvania Hospital and the Philadelphia VA Medical Center, Baltuch has treated more than 600 people with DBS. On Saturday, 74 of the patients along with 102 family members gathered to celebrate the operation that many said gave them back their lives.