One million Americans are living with Parkinson's. Once the disease progresses, even medication can't stop its most noticeable and debilitating symptom. Now there's a brain implant offering relief.
Shaking is the tell-tale sign of Parkinson's. For Ernest and his wife, the shaking was the first piece of a puzzle that led to his Parkinson's diagnosis. He got the news right after his wife was diagnosed with lung cancer.
"It just started with a tremor, and the tremor started getting worse when I started going through chemo," said Dorinda Garcia, Ernest's wife.
UCLA neurosurgeon Dr. Antonio De Salles says a lack of neurotransmitters causes the tremors.
"The cells are dying in a part of the brain," De Salles said.
Medication helps, but over the years, the cells continue dying and the brain starts to be over sensitive to the medication, so too much of the medication will cause tremors. Too little causes paralysis. Ernest opted for deep brain stimulation surgery.
"He started to depend on his wife for changing clothes, feeding him, taking care of him on everyday things," De Salles, said.
Using cat scans and MRI, doctors guide electrodes into the brain. During surgery, Ernest was actually awake, helping guide surgeons to the right spot.
"I had to move my hands, move my feet," Ernest said. "I started singing 'Wise Men Say Only Fools Fall in Love'."
The electrodes become a pacemaker for the brain and electrical impulses correct abnormal cell function.
"It's high frequency electricity coming to a specific area of the brain that's out of control," De Salles said.
The pacemaker is then permanently placed into the patient's chest. It worked for Ernest.
"He definitely moves better and speaks better," De Salles said.
"I remember thinking hallelujah," Ernest said.
Now he's regained control of his movements, his speech and his life.
The batteries in the pacemaker need to be replaced every four to six years.
There is a risk during the operation of bleeding in the brain, which could cause stroke-like symptoms, but De Salles says it's extremely rare. He tells us of the 500 surgeries he's performed it's happened in less than half of one percent of his patients.