Progressive Parkinson's Surgery Close to Home

This progressive surgery targets Parkinson's symptoms at the root of the cause—the brain.
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You may be familiar with Parkinson’s disease because of a loved one or a celebrity such as Michael J. Fox or Muhammed Ali, but do you know why it happens? Parkinson’s disease is a disorder where neurons in the central nervous system become damaged or die, affecting movement and hindering the brain from making dopamine, a neurotransmitter needed for communication between brain cells.

We spoke with Dr. Hooman Azmi, MD, a neurosurgeon at North Jersey Brain and Spine Center in Oradell, who specializes in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)-guided Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS), a progressive surgery that targets symptoms at the root of the cause—the brain. He also happens to be the first physician to have performed the MRI-guided DBS in the tri-state area.

Patients with Parkinson’s are luckily exposed to a range of medication and therapy— they are not a cure but they do quell some symptoms which helps improve the quality of life of patients. However, if a patient is on some of these medications for a long period of time, the effectiveness of the medication becomes erratic, says Dr. Azmi. Patients can develop side effects such as cognitive problems, hallucinations, motor limitations, etc.

To increase the quality of life for patients who have developed side effects from medication, Dr. Azmi implants micro-electrodes onto a specific part of the brain, powered by a battery placed under the skin. The battery only needs to be replaced once every few years, and the micro-electrodes allow patients to reduce or even eliminate the use of medication. JoAnne Gentry, a patient of Dr. Azmi, became eligible for the surgery when her medication no longer effectively maintained her progressing Parkinson’s.

“More excited than afraid”

Since the area of operation is a precise part of the brain, Dr. Azmi has to be very accurate or else the efficacy of the treatment could be compromised. Using special devices and computer guidance, he’s able to put patients’ heads in 3D spaces that provide coordinates on how to get to the right spot—similar to GPS but for the brain. Even though she was facing brain surgery, JoAnne expressed that she was “more excited than afraid” due to the anticipation of a different life.

The implanted micro-electrodes listen to nerves and their frequencies (each part of the brain has a characteristic firing pattern) and emit electrical pulses. The pulses are programmed by a pacemaker-like device placed under the collar bone to help control symptoms of Parkinson’s (and other movement disorders). JoAnne described her post-surgery life for us, mentioning that there was little if any pain. Life was normal again for her. It was like “walking on air.”

Before performing the surgery, Dr. Azmi thoroughly tests for any neuro-degenerative disorders, genetic predispositions or surgical risks for patient safety. “Everything we do is designed to minimize any potential complication as much as possible,” he says.

JoAnne was able to stop all Parkinson’s medication and resume everyday activities following the surgery. “I was playing Jenga—it was fun to do that kind of thing again,” she said. It’s easy to take simple games for granted, but for JoAnne, they’re a sign that her life is back to normal thanks to the surgery.