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Bluegrass Brain Surgery

Banjo during brain surgery


Eddie Adcock plays his banjo while undergoing deep brain stimulation.

Deep brain stimulation is an experimental technique in which electrodes are implanted into the thalamus to correct the effects of neurodegenration or brain injury. Scientists have used the process to treat essential tremor since 1997 and Parkinson’s disease since 2002. The Neurophilosophy blog reports that doctors have recently used the technique to monitor brain surgery in real time—and in tempo.

Neurosurgeons had their patient, the legendary bluegrass musician Eddie Adcock, play his banjo while he was undergoing deep brain stimulation. According to Neurophilospohy:

Adcock is suffering from essential tremor, a progressive neurological condition characterized by tremors in the arms which appear during voluntary movements and which are thought to occur as a result of degeneration of cerebellar Purkinje cells.

Due to his tremor, Adcock could no longer play the banjo with his characteristic fast-picking style. As the surgeons stimulated Adcock’s brain with electrodes, his banjo-playing became more nimble. By observing the quality of Adcock’s strumming, the surgeons were able to fine-tune the therapy by finding the most effective positions for the electrodes.

The surgery was performed at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee and video footage of the surgery is available on the BBC’s website, which explains that the electrodes are powered by a pacemaker in Adcock’s chest.

A review article in Nature Medicine (subscription) from earlier this year notes that scientists and clinicians are still unsure about how DBS actually works. It might facilitate, impede, or “overwrite” the information passing through the stimulated neurons. There is some evidence from studies of essential tremor that DBS increases production of the neuromodulator adenosine. This makes neurons less active, reducing the tremor. The charges must administered continuously by the pacemaker, otherwise the tremors resume.


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