What is deep brain stimulation and how does it help Parkinson's symptoms?

Apr 26, 2024
An anatomical rendering of a person with a deep brain stimulator implanted in their chest and two leads in their brain, a treatment which can help relieve Parkinson's symptoms.
Deep brain stimulation helps regulate the brain through mild electrical signals.

Every time you move your body, your brain sends out electrical signals to ensure each motion is fluid and steady. These steadying electrical impulses are transmitted courtesy of a chemical called dopamine – a neurotransmitter generally known as the body’s “feel-good” hormone for its role in pleasure, mood and behavior, but which also plays a large role in regulating movement. 

The body normally makes all the dopamine it needs to function properly. But in people with movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease, dopamine levels decline over time, causing parts of the brain to degenerate. The result is an often confusing and disruptive progression of debilitating symptoms that can include: 

  • Slowed movements 
  • Tremors that often start in the hands 
  • Muscle rigidity and stiffness 
  • Postural instability 
  • Speech problems 
  • Non-motor symptoms such as insomnia, pain, fatigue and depression

Parkinson’s alone affects 10 million people worldwide, including one million Americans. Unfortunately, the exact cause of the disease is still unknown, though researchers believe it may be caused by a complex combination of factors including genetics, environment and age.   

While Parkinson’s can often be managed with medication, drug treatments can become less effective as the disease progresses and dopamine levels continue to fall. In such cases, a doctor may suggest a procedure called deep brain stimulation (DBS) to help sufferers regain their quality of life. 

How does deep brain stimulation work for Parkinson’s and essential tremor? 

Deep brain stimulation sends mild electrical signals to a targeted portion of the brain through a small, surgically implanted device called a stimulator. This therapy can help regulate the abnormal signals caused by low dopamine levels and, as a result, reduce Parkinson’s symptoms. In studies, DBS patients have had an average of 70% reduction in tremor symptoms, experienced an additional six hours daily of good symptom control and showed sustained improvement for at least five years after receiving the treatment.  

Getting a DBS device is a three-stage process.  

First, a physician implants an insulated wire or two, called “leads,” under the skin and into the brain, where they can’t be seen. This surgical procedure may be performed while the patient is awake and can make simple movements so that the doctor can ensure the leads are positioned correctly.  

Several weeks later, the doctor implants a stimulator under the skin of the chest, connecting it to a long, thin wire that runs to the leads in the brain. Stimulators are generally built to be compact and low-profile; the stimulator for the Vercise™ Genus DBS System, for example, is about the size of a sandwich cookie.  

Once the hardware is in place, it’s time for the third step: Customizing the treatment to fit the patient’s specific needs. 

Personalized treatment for optimal symptom relief 

This final step is crucial for optimal symptom relief. Because we all have a unique brain anatomy, the symptoms of Parkinson’s or essential tremor express themselves differently in every person, making the path to relief just as personal. 

Using a specialized tablet that wirelessly communicates with DBS devices, a doctor can adjust the amount of stimulation emitted from a patient’s device to find the optimal therapy level for them: one that will deliver enough electrical current to reduce symptoms, but not so much as to cause temporary side effects, such as numbness or tingling. 

The improvement to the patient can be instantaneous – imagine a shaky leg suddenly still, or a stiff arm finally relaxing.  

Typically, deep brain stimulation programming requires many sessions to find the right balance. Until recently, in fact, doctors had to make their adjustments without the help of visuals to guide them – a time-consuming and imprecise process. 

However, innovative new technology like the Vercise™ Neural Navigator 5 Software generates real-time, 3D renderings of the implanted leads, allowing doctors to see their positioning and orientation as well as the area of the brain targeted for stimulation. In studies, image-guided programming reduced the programming time for Parkinson’s patients by 56%, to an average of just 20 minutes.  

And the more quickly doctors can identify the deep brain stimulation treatment that’s optimal for people living with Parkinson’s, the more quickly they can find relief from their symptoms and get back to living their fullest lives. 


Learn more about deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s and essential tremor.