Parkinson’s disease (PD) is the second most common neurodegenerative disorder after Alzheimer’s disease and affects nearly 100,000 Canadians. It is characterized by stiffness of movement, freezing, and tremors. PD can lead to depression, anxiety, cognitive impairment, and a host of other symptoms. The cause is unknown and there is no known cure.

For many people living with the disease, medical management is their only recourse. Patients can require up to 30 pills a day to control their symptoms. For suitable candidates, a procedure called deep brain stimulation (DBS) is also used to treat symptoms. 

DBS uses a surgically implanted medical device called a neurostimulator — similar to a heart pacemaker — to deliver electrical stimulation to targeted areas in the brain that control movement and can allow those living with PD to drastically reduce their medication. 

Seizing the opportunity

Doctors at The Ottawa Hospital are seizing the opportunity to conduct groundbreaking research into the disease during DBS procedures.

Patients having the neurostimulator for DBS implanted remain awake for most of the surgery, which can last up to 13 hours. During this time, Dr. Adam Sachs, a neurosurgeon at The Ottawa Hospital, places patients in a virtual reality environment and records their brain activity as they complete various tasks. 

“With the tremor gone, I looked normal... It gave me a new lease on life.”

“Our research is aimed at improving the therapy, and possibly giving rise to treatments that may be responsive to the real-time activity of the brain,” says Dr. Sachs. “What we're hoping to do is give better treatment to people who may be candidates for DBS.”

Dr. Jacques Theriault, a retired family physician from Hawkesbury, ON, underwent DBS in 2014 and became one of Dr. Sachs’ research volunteers.

“During the procedure, I was given virtual reality goggles and I was controlling things spatially with my mind,” says Dr. Theriault. “It was just amazing.”

Moving forward

Before his procedure, Dr. Theriault was taking 19 pills a day to control his symptoms. He underwent the procedure and recovered quickly. Within a week, his doctors switched on the neurostimulator and Dr. Theriault’s tremors disappeared immediately.

“With the tremor gone, I looked normal,” says Dr. Theriault. “It gave me a new lease on life.” He now takes just three

Dr. Sachs received subspecialty training at Stanford University before launching the DBS program and research facility. Instrumental in the clinical and research program’s development respectively were neurologist, Dr. Tiago Mestre, and Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr. Chad Boulay.

“We don't know this for sure but we have some preliminary data that suggests that participants may be able to control the activity of the brain,” says Dr. Sachs. “If they are able to, then the question is: what does this let them do? Does this improve the smoothness of their movements, the reaction time, the accuracy?”

Sachs’ research in collaboration with Prof. Julio Martinez at Western University continues to pave the way towards improved treatment for those living with Parkinson’s disease.

“It’s hard to put into words,” says Dr. Sachs. “It’s been a very rewarding experience.”