Video: Brain stimulation shows promise

By Robert Bazell Chief science and health correspondent
NBC News
updated 6/23/2005 7:35:18 PM ET 2005-06-23T23:35:18

NEW YORK — Beka Serdans is a critical care nurse who helps many sick people. But for much of her life she has been fighting her own ailment — a muscle disorder called dystonia that causes a painful and awkward twisting of her muscles, especially in her neck.

"Normally, I will be like this, with one shoulder elevated, and have no idea how I'm going to be corrected," says Serdans as she contorts her body.

We first met Serdans six years ago when she was getting an experimental treatment with Botox. The same medicine that eliminates wrinkles in the face can relax the muscles that seize in dystonia. And for a time, it worked.

"It heaven not to have twitches, tremors and not to look like, really, an idiot to a degree," Serdans told NBC News in 1999.

But the Botox stopped working, and now Serdans is trying something much more radical — a surgery called deep brain stimulation.

Using precisely guided imaging, Dr. Michael Kaplitt puts electrodes into Serdans’ brain at Weill-Cornell Medical College in New York. Serdans stays conscious during the operation to be sure the electrodes are going into the right area. Eventually, the wires are connected to a power source to stimulate certain brain cells that control the muscles.

This technique has worked very well to control symptoms of Parkinson's disease, and it's even being tried for depression.

"The idea that we could go into specific spots of the brain and try to control the  way the brain is functioning, that has extraordinary promise," says Kaplitt.

A few months after the surgery and some electrical adjustments, Serdans is fine. She says she knew it was working while she was still on the operating table.

"The tears just started flowing, and I knew that this was finally hope," says Serdans. "I was crying because I knew it was going to work."

Serdans’ neck used to be so crooked that she couldn't eat regular food like a slice of pizza. But now, "I ate pizza for three weeks in a row!" she says.

And she is looking forward to many other aspects of a normal life after the success of this cutting-edge brain treatment.

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