Surgery Fine-Tunes Legendary Banjo Player's Brain

After brain surgery, tremor-stricken banjo legend is picking again.

ByABC News via logo
October 2, 2008, 6:40 PM

Oct. 3, 2008 — -- Eddie Adcock's fast picking and unconventional style made him world famous as a bluegrass banjo innovator. But when tremors took over his once dexterous hands, he lost the ability to play the music he loved.

Now, thanks to an incredible brain surgery, during which Adcock was awake and playing the banjo until the doctors got it just right, he can turn his talent back on, literally at the push of a button.

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Adcock suffered from an essential tremor, an involuntary trembling in the head or hands that afflicts 10 million Americans.

"It was the most devastating thing that has ever happened in my entire life," he told "Good Morning America."

Adcock's wife, Martha, was the first to notice the tremor.

"When I first noticed, his skills were not the same and we were trying to figure out what was going on," she said. "It was distressing because this has been his whole life."

But doctors at Vanderbilt University Medical Center offered a possible solution -- a procedure called "deep brain stimulation" in which surgeons place an electrode into Adcock's thalamus and connect it to a type of pacemaker. When the pacemaker is activated, a bolt of energy jams the tremor, allowing Adcock to regain control of his hands.

The procedure had been extremely successful in the past, but this case presented a unique challenge.

"I knew we would be able to control the tremor," Dr. Joseph Neimat of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center told "Good Morning America." "It was returning the dexterity back to his level of play that was really a tall order."

To make sure the procedure would have the desired effect, the doctors not only kept Adcock awake during the invasive brain surgery, but also let him play the banjo while the doctors poked around in his brain.

During the surgery there was a cacophony of sounds -- the beeping of the various equipment in the room, doctors and nurses scurrying around and Neimat probing through Adcock's brain while asking "Does that feel any better?" And over it all, there was the twang of lightning-fast banjo picking when Neimat hit just the right spot.