Pilot flies again with Parkinson’s brain implant

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — One million Americans suffer from Parkinson’s disease, a chronic neurological disorder, incurable, with worsening symptoms such as tremors of the head arms and legs, slow movement and unstable posture. Nearly a third of the cases are diagnosed before the age of 40. There is no cure and as a patient’s condition deteriorates, increased medications can create their own side effects. It cost one Austin man his commercial pilot’s license, but thanks to a Deep Brain Stimulation implant, he has his life, and the sky, back.

Barry Alan Stein was diagnosed with Parkinson’s a decade ago. Tremors worsened, his medications were increased and side effects kicked in.

“It was very frustrating. I was taking forty pills a day and I felt horrible, not good at all,” he says. In the fall of 2013 he got the bad news, after 37 years he could no longer be the pilot in command of his aircraft. “That was incredibly difficult. I loved to fly, it was my life, what I did.”

New doctors suggested a Deep Brain Stimulation implant. Approved a dozen years ago, they have been used cautiously at first, sometimes too late to provide much help. Dr. Robert Buchanan, neurosurgeon with the Seton Brain and Spine Institute, recalls “We brought patients into the operating room that were so far advanced in their disease that you almost needed a magic wand to help them.”

The implant trains the misfiring brain neurons to behave. It tames the tremors and those medication side effects. Dr. Georgeta Varga at the Movement Disorders Specialist Clinic, saw what the meds were doing to Stein, “Making mistakes, poor decisions. That’s not a good thing for anybody, especially a pilot.” She and Dr. Buchanan performed the implant. She says, “Doing the surgery earlier you can decrease medication prior to surgery 30 to 60 percent. Doing so you diminish the side effects of higher medication.”

Dr. Buchanan notes doctors are using the implant sooner and more often,

“They had gone through ten years of disease or more where their quality of life could have been immediately improved,” he explained.

While generally safe and effective, the implant is an invasive brain procedure, and as such a patient should consult their doctor and consider carefully before going ahead. The implant is covered by all insurance companies as well as medicare and medicaid.

Only 3 percent of the people with Parkinson’s have received the implant but those numbers are expected to rise. Three weeks ago, Barry Stein got his pilot’s license back. He smiles, “It’s a beautiful experience, to sit in the left seat of an aircraft and go up all by myself. A beautiful feeling to leave this earth and go into the sky, feel it again. It’s wonderful.”

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