Surgeon visiting Steamboat Springs to talk “brain pacemakers”

Teresa Ristow
Jeanne Upbin sings with Dan Comstock during a Parkinson's support group workshop at Rollingstone Respite House in April.

If you go:

What: Seminar on deep brain stimulation for Parkinson's disease

Where: Bud Werner Memorial Library, 1289 Lincoln Ave.

When: 12 p.m. Monday, Nov. 7

— Steamboat Springs attorney Mark Steinke remembers struggling to stay awake during his surgery to have a “brain pacemaker” installed in 2009.

Steinke, who has Parkinson’s disease, underwent surgery for deep brain stimulation, or DBS, therapy — a treatment for motor function symptoms of the degenerative disease.

The treatment involved putting a battery-operated neurosimulator in Steinke’s head, which is used to deliver electrical impulses to areas of the brain that control movement.

“It was interesting, but it wasn’t bad,” said Steinke, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s 14 years ago. “They ask you questions and make you say things. You have to stay awake.”

Steinke said the surgery was successful, and tremors he previously had were completely gone afterward.

“For me, it was a really good thing,” he said.

Neurosurgeon Dr. David VanSickle of Littleton, who performed Steinke’s 2009 surgery, will visit Steamboat Springs Monday to share the latest advancements in DBS therapy, which is also used to treat essential tremors, obsessive compulsive disorder and dystonia, among other conditions.

The free presentation, hosted by the Parkinson’s Association of the Rockies, takes place at noon Monday at the Bud Werner Memorial Library.

VanSickle said this week that the FDA guidelines for when people with Parkinson’s should consider the treatment have changed over the years.

“When we first started doing this, it was something you would only do when medications were exhausted and you had no other options,” he said.

The latest guidelines recommend that if a patient has experienced symptoms for at least four years they could be a good candidate for the surgery, VanSickle said.

VanSickle said many people with Parkinson’s don’t go to the doctor until they’ve had symptoms for years, so the recommended four-year waiting period isn’t as long as it might seem.

The way the surgery is performed has also evolved, from a six- to eight-hour procedure in which patients were awake and responsive, like the procedure Steinke had, to one where patients are asleep, and which can now be performed with the help of robotics.

VanSickle was the first American neurosurgeon to use robotics for the DBS procedure, using computer imaging to identify the correct areas of the brain for electrodes and speed up the procedure.

After performing the surgery many times, VanSickle said the most common feedback he hears from patients is that they wish they’d had the procedure sooner.

“Almost everyone says they wish they did it earlier. And I’ve heard from spouses who thank me for giving them their husband back,” he said.

Despite the successes of DBS therapy, VanSickle emphasized that the treatment is not a cure for Parkinson’s, only a treatment option for some symptoms.

DBS can treat motor issues like tremors, slowness, gait and ease of movement but does not treat cognitive changes or balance.

At Monday’s presentation, VanSickle will give an overview of the surgery and discuss what type of patients are good candidates.

To reach Teresa Ristow, call 970-871-4206, email or follow her on Twitter @TeresaRistow

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