If there were a surgical procedure of the year, 2007's winner would have been an operation known as deep brain stimulation (DBS). Most folks are not familiar with it, but 40,000 people (myself included) are intimately so, having undergone it as a radicaland startlingly effectiveway to treat the symptoms of Parkinson's disease. Last year a new frontier in DBS was opened when a team led by Dr. Nicholas Schiff of the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City used it to turn the cognitive lights back on in a man who had spent six years in a near coma as a result of injuries suffered in a mugging and had seemed destined to spend the rest of his life that way.
A DBS procedure is actually two operations. First, surgeons drill a pair of dime-size holes in the skull and thread fine wires down to whatever area of the brain is misfiring or otherwise malfunctioning. A week later, they insert a pacemaker-like device in the chest, thread wires under the skin and connect them to the ones in the brain. When they metaphorically flip the switch (actually, they use magnets to turn the batteries on and off), the symptoms disappear, or at least are greatly reduced.
For the brain-damaged man in last year's procedure, that reduction meant a lot. He is far from cured, but he can recognize his parents and conduct brief conversations. Schiff, 42, led the team that planned and conducted the procedure, though the surgery itself was performed at the Cleveland Clinic by Dr. Ali Rezai, who also performed my procedure and has used DBS on patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder and deep clinical depression. As battlefield medical care gets increasingly sophisticated, more and more soldiers with catastrophic head injuries are surviving combat zones like Iraq, only to come home and find that little can be done to restore their minds. Now, thanks to Schiff and his colleagues, that is changing.
Kinsley, a TIME columnist, underwent DBS to treat Parkinson's in 2006
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