Patients' Tremors Stopped After New Non-Invasive, Pain-Free Brain Surgery

PHOTO: Dot Highberg, 56, is able to eat using a fork for the first time immediately after undergoing a procedure called MRI-guided Focused Ultrasound Surgery, a non-invasive, pain-free brain surgery she had to treat her debilitating essential tremors.
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Phyllis Walker's hands used to shake so badly she had to stop eating at the dinner table with her family.

"As a normal thing, I pretty much ate over the sink, so that I wouldn't spill things," the 77-year-old grandmother from Ivor, Va., said. "I could not use a fork and knife, couldn't -- just didn't want to sit at the table and be embarrassed."

Just four hours away in Burtonsville, Md., 56-year-old Dot Highberg was also losing control of her hands. She tried medication after medication, each working for awhile, but eventually, the shaking would return with a vengeance.

"The tremors were just getting worse and worse. It wasn't getting better and it wasn't going to get better," Highberg said. "It looked like I was gonna be on medication for the rest of my life."

Diagnosed with essential tremors, a neurological disorder that causes patients to lose control of their hands, heads and voices, both women were desperate for help. They were each forced to stop doing the things they loved.

Walker, who has two grandsons serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, was no longer able to write letters to give them a grandmother's advice, or receive communion at church. The shaking was so bad that it started affecting her everyday life.

"I couldn't cook, because I couldn't measure ingredients without spilling them. I couldn't take things out of the oven. I was afraid I would spill those or burn myself," she said. "I couldn't brush my teeth like I wanted to, because I would injure my mouth."

For the women and an estimated 10 million other Americans who suffer from the disorder, life was a struggle.

"It was… a matter of not being able to have control. It's like the tremor had control of you -- you didn't have control of it," said Highberg.

Until one day they both got the chance to take back control of their lives. Dr. Jeff Elias, associate professor of neurology at the University of Virginia, and his team were beginning a clinical trial for patients suffering from essential tremors -- using a technique stripped right from a scene in a science fiction movie. Elias was planning to use ultrasound waves, focused to a specific point located by using an MRI machine, to treat the part of the brain that was causing the shaking.

"We're able to focus these 1,024 ultrasound beams to a single point and -- treat or -- or disrupt a lot of the tremor cells that are causing the problem," he said. "Essentially tremor's a neuro-degenerative problem, like Parkinson's disease. And it probably develops from an abnormal circuitry in the brain. And we're able to treat that circuit and restore it to a more normal condition."

Walker, who learned about the surgery from her daughter-in-law, immediately took interest.

"It sounded like a miracle," she said. "I was considering the deep brain surgery...I really didn't want to do that."

She was accepted into the trial and underwent the procedure in August 2011 for the shaking in her right hand. The results were immediately clear -- once the four-hour procedure had ended, Walker's shaking had stopped. The doctors and nurses were able to test the patients while they were wide awake to make sure they were hitting the correct spot with the ultrasound waves.

"The girl was in there testing whether I could draw circles or write my name and so forth. And it was immediate. I could write my name," said Walker, who's handwriting was illegible just hours before. "I was surprised -- very pleased."

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