Medical Frontier: Brain Surgery for Weight Loss

Photo: Medical Frontier: Brain Surgery for Weight Loss: Is Deep Brain Stimulation the Answer to Americas Obesity Epidemic?PlayABC News
WATCH Inside Story of Brain Surgery

For Carol Poe, obesity is the most painful problem in the world. She has tried everything to lose weight: from dieting to bariatric surgery, without success. Tired of being morbidly overweight, Poe volunteered for the most radical treatment ever devised for obesity -- brain surgery.

In March 2009, she became the second person in the United States to undergo deep brain stimulation, or DBS, for weight loss. In this experimental treatment, electricity is introduced to specific parts of the brain believed to control particular behaviors, in Poe's case, feelings of hunger and satisfaction.

Doctors inserted needles into "the part of my brain that controls the food," said Poe, 62, before her surgery last year. Doctors then threaded wires under her scalp, down each side of her clavicle, to a battery pack. Since the surgery, doctors have been experimenting with sending electrical voltages to her brain, attempting to find a setting that will help her lose weight. At 5 feet 4 inches, Poe, a married mother of two, said that at her heaviest she weighed about 490 pounds. When she underwent the surgery, she weighed 285 pounds.

In an exclusive report, Nightline was with Poe eighteen months ago when she underwent the procedure. Did it work? And is deep brain stimulation the answer to the obesity epidemic?

"When you're heavy and you walk down the street ? everybody looks at you and they're snickering and they're laughing," said Poe at her home in Morgantown, W. Va. "When you go on an airplane and everybody looks to see if you're going to be able to sit in a seat ? the weight has just taken over my life."

During the surgery, the team of doctors targeted Poe's brain, rather than her stomach.

"I've just known in my heart that there had to be something else. That there had to be something," she said before the procedure. "I've tried everything else. I've tried all the fad diets. I've tried liquid protein. I've tried Redux, Fen-Phen. I've had a stomach bypass. I've tried the Atkins diet. I've tried them all. And it's not coming off. So I really believe that it's got something to do with the brain."

Deep brain stimulation has already proved successful in the treatment of neurological conditions such as Parkinson's disease and epilepsy -- eliminating or reducing the tremors and ticks. Surgeons believe the procedure is effective in treating behavioral problems, such as obsessive compulsive disorder and depression, and now hold hopes about using it to fight obesity.

Neurosurgeons from West Virginia University Health Sciences Center are leading the way with a Food and Drug Administration-approved study of deep brain stimulation for the treatment of obesity.

"This is not for overweight patients. It's for obese patients," said Dr. Julian Bailes, chief of West Virginia University's department of neurosurgery, acknowledging that currently two-thirds of the American population is overweight. "Remember that obesity itself will reduce your life expectancy maybe 20 years. It's associated with many other diseases: diabetes, heart disease and others. So it's a real problem. ... We think our responsibility as physicians who maybe have a better understanding than most is to look at the potential and sort of the intervention of the brain."

Brain Surgery: 'Best Chance' for Some Obese People

Only patients who've tried every other treatment, including bariatric surgery, qualify for the study. And all must undergo a detailed psychiatric evaluation.

"She has a good profile," Bailes said of Poe, at the time of her surgery. "She's failed the best surgery that we know of, which is gastric surgery. ... So I think it is the best chance for them, for her."

Skeptics may wonder if deep brain stimulation is a drastic medical treatment for a behavioral problem, but Bailes believes "there is a medical issue of obesity."

"I believe that many people have done everything they can," he said. "And maybe there's some predisposition. Maybe there's some effect that the brain cannot control exactly what we consume."

There are risks associated with the surgery -- from infection and hemorrhaging, and in the most extreme cases (less than 1 percent) paralysis or death. Bailes said the FDA had been "appropriately scrutinizing" the study.

"For some, it may seem radical that electrodes should be put in the brain, that someone should be doing brain surgery for obesity. But I think we've gotten through that and we are very happy to be able to do the first series of patients here, looking at the effects and possible benefits," Bailes said.

"This is a frontier of medicine, a frontier of neurosurgery, a frontier of neurological disease, to be able to generate tiny pulses of electricity in these deep nuclei of the brain, and to see what effect they may have on behavior, including in this case the behavior of eating and the issue of uncontrolled appetite,'' he said.

Since there are no pain receptors in the brain, Poe's scalp was prepped with a topical anesthetic. She was awake throughout the surgery.

"I'm excited about being awake. I want to be awake," she said, before her surgery. "Because if I'm awake, I'll know everything that's going on."

Neurosurgeons, Dr. Michael Oh and Dr. Donald Whiting drilled about 10 centimeters into Poe's brain, on both hemispheres, through a pathway of tissue that does not affect other functions. When they reached a point in the hypothalamus, which controls the stomach, a wire was introduced that would ultimately carry an electrical pulse. The plan was to alter the level of electricity that's generated by that region naturally, thereby giving Poe the sensation of feeling full.

Dr. Oh followed the surgery on a computer, which helped the surgeons find the point at which they'd introduce electrodes.

"Although we are applying this technology for obesity, there are certainly many more possibilities in the near future that are going to be available for people with many neurodegenerative disorders," Oh said.

Controlling the Body With the Brain

To some extent, the surgeons are able to evaluate patients' reactions during an awake surgery and talk to them.

"During this procedure, when we have the electrode in this target, we will be asking her about stimulation-induced responses, whether she has a feeling of hunger whether she has any memory responses," Oh explained.

During the surgery, the surgeons can actually provoke a reaction to this electrical current and control the current by adjusting the amount of electricity applied.

Once they get a successful response, doctors "implant a permanent generator, and they have this constant electrical current to that part of the brain," Oh said.

Poe said the procedure didn't hurt but found the stabilization device the doctors put on her head uncomfortable. "It's just real tight," she said. "Like your head is in a vice."

After about an hour of the most delicate movements, doctors believed they'd reached the precise spot. When the electrical current was first introduced, doctors asked Poe if she felt hungry or full, and also whether she felt hot or cold.

"I'm getting warm now," she said. "Yeah, I was cold." The tested electricity level was lowered. Poe was unaware of when the doctors signaled for a change in the electrical current, so she couldn't play into what she believed they might want to hear.

"Tell me if that changes anything," said Whiting.

"Yeah, I'm cooled off," said Poe. "I really am. Yeah, I am pretty cool."

The so-called thermostat of the brain, where we get our sense of temperature, is right next to the region where the stomach is also controlled.

Poe said she felt fine, and even at a moment like that, her favorite beverage came to mind. "I sure could use a Pepsi, though," she said. "I told him to find the Pepsi button. He must have found it. Woo!"

Almost miraculously, doctors were controlling Poe's stomach through her brain.

"And then they started to turn it up, and I had to tell them if I felt anything different. Like I started getting real hot. And then I felt like I was going to throw up," Poe said later.

"They knew exactly every pinpoint," she said. "It was like they knew my body. They knew how my body was reacting to everything, and they knew what to do to make it back where it should be."

The surgery lasted three hours. Poe remained in the hospital, and two pacemaker-type devices were implanted into her chest to control the amount of voltage sent to her brain.

"You want to do a touchdown end-zone dance, because it was exactly what we wanted to get with the location and the voltage," said Whiting immediately after the surgery.

Whiting also discussed why maintaining a constant dialogue with Poe was so important. For more than 40 minutes, doctors kept talking, asking Poe repeatedly how she was feeling.

"She wants to? theoretically give us the answers we want to hear and what we want to (do) is, without her knowing, change parameters to see if it was consistent," Whiting explained. "And in fact there were some things early on that weren't consistent, and we knew they weren't for real, but the nausea findings were very consistent so we very well [could] prove that they were for real."

Creating a Sensation of Fullness

The morning after surgery, Poe was irrepressible.

"I didn't think I'd feel this good today," she said. "I really feel good. I could go home if they'd let me, because I'm that confident about it. I don't worry about going home and something happening.

"I think the best part of the surgery was the fact that I was awake."

"And I got to hear everything that was going on. I could hear the drill drilling into my head, and I thought, 'Oh my God.' And it was like a big bunch of pressure, like when you push down on something. I could feel all the pressure. And then I could actually feel the drill going through the bone into where it wanted to be."

Three weeks after the surgery, the voltage inside Poe's brain pacemakers was turned on, to be increased over time. According to doctors, it would be several months before any weight loss would be noticeable.

"She got a nausea feeling at higher voltages," said Whiting. "Our ideal plan would be to set the electrical setting at just below that threshold of nausea where she doesn't really feel any different but still readjust her weight thermostat so that she can metabolize better and actually eat less if that's what it takes."

Bailes said the goal was to help Poe feel satisfied when she ate. "We hope her sensation is a sensation of satiety, a sensation of fullness, a lack of compulsion to consume excess calories," he said.

Four weeks after the surgery, Poe said she had already lost three pounds. "When I eat, I get full faster," she said. "I just don't have the cravings like I used to have."

And she said she no longer has the urge to consume a whole 3-liter bottle of her favorite drink -- Pepsi -- every day.

As part of the study, Poe is required to keep a meticulous journal of everything she consumes, and doctors have carefully tracked her progress.

"If I have a craving it's just a little craving and it's not just a craving to keep eating and eating and eating it," she said. "My body feels different. I feel like I am more, I'm more satisfied as far as food goes. And ? I feel better."

Success of a Kind: Turning Down the Cravings but Weight Loss Remains Elusive

Yet in the eighteen months since Poe began the deep brain stimulation, she has continued to struggle with her obesity. Her weight has fluctuated since surgery, down a total of 18 pounds at one point and up to 10 pounds heavier at another point.

But doctors are seeing promise in the experimental treatment.

She is required to check in every two to three weeks and each time doctors adjust the voltage to her brain pacemakers and watch what happens.

"They turned me off for like two weeks and boy, I knew the difference when they did! In about 3 days I was ready to eat," Poe said.

Poe is ecstatic about the change the treatment has made. Her quality of life is far better. "I don't want to eat all the time and that's the biggest change," she said. "I know it's crazy but I am telling you if you saw me eating you would believe me."

Her doctors, too, are counting this effect as a success. "The fact that she hasn't lost weight is, is the next phase," said Bailes. "I think that is, is the more difficult part, and the part that has to be figured out by ? by our team here and others."

Poe's doctors have decided to shift focus. "The thing we are not getting to yet is the actual weight loss, which comes down to changing the metabolism," he said.

Venturing further into the medically unknown, late last month, Whiting and his team flew Poe to a lab at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, where she spent most of a week alone in a closet-sized metabolic chamber for intense monitoring, while doctors turned up her electricity, measuring what each electrode was doing to see if they could increase her metabolism.

"A lot of people think I'm a guinea pig, but I feel like it's teaching," said Poe. "It's a learning experience. For them and for me. So I don't feel like I'm a guinea pig."

At the end of her stay in the chamber, the medical team discovered one setting that boosted her metabolism a sustained 18 percent. Over the course of the week in the chamber, Poe lost close to 10 pounds.

"The pieces are coming together but we don't know the end of the story yet," said Whiting.

"If I lose weight, I lose weight," said Poe, "and if I don't, I don't. But I still don't have that urge that has consumed my life. I don't feel like food is pushing me under, where before I thought, that was all I thought about, that was my whole life."