Brain Surgery for Parkinson's Linked to Longer Life in Promising New Study

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Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's disease, performing at a benefit for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. Mike Coppola/Getty

There’s currently no cure for Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that degrades a person’s ability to move over time, and affects an estimated 7 to 10 million people around the world. Now, looking at records of hundreds of Parkinson’s patients, researchers have found that deep brain stimulation (DBS) implants may improve life expectancy.

The researchers from several different universities looked at two groups of veterans with Parkinson’s: 611 were treated with DBS, and 611 were not. They found that the DBS group had a “survival advantage” of a little over 7.5 months. They published their findings in the journal Movement Disorders.

Parkinson’s is a disease that severly disables most people who have it. But it doesn’t kill, at least not directly. Rather, it disables, and leads to conditions that end a person’s life. Medications can help manage symptoms, and DBS implants, which electrically stimulate parts of the brain, have been shown to reduce motor symptoms in people with the disease for whom those medications no longer work. The latest study suggests DBS's role in alleviating symptoms may, in effect, help extend life. 

“You can’t move so you get a pneumonia, you can’t move so you fall,” Dr. Alon Mogilner, a neurosurgeon at NYU Langone Medical Center who performs deep brain stimulation surgery, told Newsweek .

While this is one of a very small number of studies to directly look at DBS’s effect on life expectancy in Parkinson's (DBS is used to treat other conditions), as Mogilner points out, several studies have found that DBS has a positive impact on Parkinson's patients' quality of life. By helping to alleviate a person's symptoms, the implant makes it easier for them to move around and manage their day-to-day lives. Though, as the authors of the new study write that “improvement was not sustained over longterm followup.”

“It makes a lot of sense that if you improve someone’s overall function, you’ll improve their overall independence,” Mogilner said. “It only follows that it should increase their life expectancy.”

Of course, for a person who actually has the disease, that might not feel like the most important question.

“A common question is ‘Will this slow down my Parkinson’s?' We don’t know.” But the possibility of improved, and now extended, quality life could affect the way people think about undergoing the surgery for deep brain stimulation. While, as Mogilner points out, patients have occasionally died from the procedure, he believes the risks are far outweighed by the potential benefits. 

Like any study, this one has its limits. The gold standard would be to do what’s called a prospective study: looking at both groups of patients before and after some were given DBS. But, as Mogilner points out, that’s harder to pull off: a study like that would take around 10 years and cost quite a lot of money, he said. And, overall, while the researchers found a significant difference, it’s a difference of months, not years.

The bigger impact of a paper like this, according to Mogilner, is helping patients who may be considering the procedure. He says it's often very difficult for patients to weigh the risks of choosing not to undergo treatment like this. As for what this paper means for the patients he sees, Mogilner never brings up life expectancy in talking to patients about DBS. But now, he says, he might start. “I would say another 7 to 8 months of good, quality life, is definitely something worthwhile.”

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