Almost 16 years after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, George Martin says he has his life back — thanks to a first-of-its-kind technology.
The 68-year-old lives in Mount Pearl, Newfoundland, but the NeuroSphere Virtual Clinic allows his doctors to treat him remotely from Toronto.
It’s reduced the tremors caused by his condition and allowed him to live his life again, Martin told CBC Toronto.
“I can drive again, which I couldn’t do. I can go in restaurants, which I was too nervous to go to, too afraid of falling down. I can dance again,” Martin said. “I got my life back.”
Martin underwent surgery last November to begin deep brain stimulation (DBS). The treatment relies on a device, described as a pacemaker for the brain, that runs electrodes to the parts of the brain that causes Martin’s tremors. DBS isn’t new, but before the approval of the NeuroSphere Virtual Clinic in Canada, patients would need to make in-person appointments with their doctor to make substantial adjustments to the device.
Toronto Western Hospital’s Krembil Brain Institute is the first clinic to implement the new technology in Canada and Martin is the first patient in the country to receive treatment.
Pandemic pushed development of remote technology
Prior to the technology being used by Krembil Brain Institute, in-person DBS clinics were limited to Canada’s more populated regions.
Some provinces don’t have any treatment centres at all, said Dr. Alfonso Fasano, a clinician investigator at the institute.
He told CBC Toronto the COVID-19 pandemic provided the incentive to roll out a fully remote treatment option.
“Finally there was this push to implement something that allows us to program patients remotely,” Fasano said. “It’s like any telemedicine platform, but it’s embedded within the program that we use to [adjust the device’s settings].”
It’s like using any other tablet, he said. “We see the patient, we talk to the patient and we can adjust their DBS settings in real time and it’s extremely safe.”
The software was developed to withstand cyberattacks and connection malfunctions, he added.
Fasano is excited about the possibilities this new technology opens up. He hopes that soon patients all over Canada will be able to receive treatment without having to travel distances, as long as they have an internet connection.
The NeuroSphere technology can also help patients with a variety of neurological ailments. DBS is also approved to treat essential tremor disorder, dystonia, and epilepsy, Fasono said.
In the future it may also be approved to treat other psychiatric afflictions like obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and more.
One added bonus, Fasano said, is that patients can be examined at home in their everyday environments. This allows doctors to program the technology to best meet the patients daily needs.
Martin said he’s thankful to be able to get the treatment he needs from the comfort of his home.
After years of unsuccessful treatments for Parkinson’s, he said he was almost ready to give up.
“My specialist here in Newfoundland … looked at me one day and said, ‘There’s nothing more I can do for you,'” Martin said.
Fortunately, that specialist suggested he look into DBS treatment.
With the help of his sister who lives in Toronto, Martin made the long trip for an assessment.
Within a week, he said he was called back to undergo surgery. He was released the same day and, thankfully, hasn’t had to travel back again since.
He simply logs into Zoom to meet with his doctor.
Now, in his spare time, he camps in his travel trailer on the weekends and enjoys walking his four beagles, activities he couldn’t do before remote DBS treatment.
“Anybody considering having the operation, I recommend it,” Martin said. “It’s been great for me. And I thank [the doctors] very much.”