On Oct. 25, the National Geographic Channel broadcast the brain surgery of an actual patient on live television.
The patient is a 49-year-old man who has Parkinson’s Disease. He is recovering well after the operation, National Geographic reported, but doctors won’t know whether the surgery to implant electrodes on his brain worked for quite a while — possibly several months.
The two-hour show, appropriately called “Brain Surgery Live,” was launched in partnership with the magazine Mental Floss.
Filming was done “via two handheld cameras well as several robotic cameras with inputs directly in the doctors’ surgical equipment, allowing viewers to see live images as the brain is being operated on in real time,” Kate Stanhope explained in The Hollywood Reporter, which first reported the news.
The show was designed to give viewers a look at a deep brain stimulation surgery, which involves drilling a small hole in the skull to attach electrodes to the brain. Those electrodes are connected to a pacemaker-like device so they can release electrical impulses to targeted areas of the brain.
The surgery is used to help treat certain neurological diseases like Parkinson’s. Because it’s very important that the electrodes are placed on the exact brain areas the stimulation is designed to target, the neurosurgeon typically talks to the fully awake patient during the procedure.
On Sunday night, that led to some dramatic moments. When the electrodes were first turned on — a necessary step to make sure they’re placed correctly — the patient “was able to move his hands without trembling for the first time in 10 years,” National Geographic reported. “Wow,” he said. “I never expected this at all.”
That doesn’t mean he is cured, however. The electrodes have to be carefully calibrated, a process doctors can’t even begin until his brain heals. And the changes brought about by deep brain stimulation are more dramatic for some Parkinson’s patients than others.
“Many patients experience considerable reduction of their [Parkinson’s] symptoms and are able to greatly reduce their medications,” notes the National Parkinson’s Foundation. “The amount of reduction varies from patient to patient.”
While deep brain stimulation has been shown to be more effective than existing medical therapies for treating Parkinson’s, it is not without risks.
Among the most serious is that when the electrodes are being are being placed, doctors can accidentally puncture a blood vessel, causing a stroke. Other rare complications that have been observed during deep brain stimulation surgery are abnormally low blood pressure and seizures.
In a 2009 study published in JAMA, researchers looked at 121 Parkinson’s patients who had undergone the surgery. They found a total of 39 “serious adverse events related to the surgical procedure.” The most common complication was an infection, usually treated with antibiotics, but others were more severe. One patient in the study experienced a brain hemorrhage 24 hours after the surgery and died.
All of which is to say: While deep brain stimulation has been an important development for patients, and though the surgery has an “acceptably low” risk of complication, it was still a delicate thing to show on live TV.
Fortunately, all signs so far indicate that it went well.
The show also provided an opportunity for a wider audience to learn about brain surgery — and the brain in general. That seemed to be the perspective of the team involved.
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