Getting Seizures Under Control: “A Pacemaker for the Brain”

About two million Americans have epilepsy, a recurrent seizure disorder caused by abnormal electrical discharges from brain cells.

While the majority of epileptic seizures are controlled by medication, particularly anticonvulsant therapy, they’re not without their own problems. Side effects can be severe and cause nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness and more.

Retired police officer Adele Roberts of Chicago knows that all too well.

When she was diagnosed with partial complex seizure disorder in 2010, she was put on medication to control her condition.

“It was horrible,” she said. “I had stomach aches, headaches and dizziness. I was vomiting; I couldn’t continue on it.”

Her neurologist at the time, Tonya Fuller, M.D., switched her to a different drug — Topamax, which carried its own side effects. During the first three months on the drug, Adele lost weight, and became moody and aggressive.

Adele struggled for three months with the debilitating side effects. They eventually subsided, but her relief was short-lived thanks to a flurry of seizures.

“They came in clusters and would last for days,” Adele added. “Looking ahead to a lifetime of trying different cocktails of medications sounded so depressing to me.”

That’s when Dr. Fuller talked to her about a tiny implantable device called a vagus nerve stimulator (VNS).

“There’s one vagus nerve on each side of the body,” Dr. Fuller said. “It helps regulate internal organs such as the heart and stomach.”

Nerve fibers within the vagus nerve are also connected to the part of the brain believed to be responsible for producing seizures.

VNS therapy is designed to prevent seizures by sending regular, mild pulses of electrical energy to the brain via the vagus nerve.

Adele readily agreed to the procedure, which was performed by experienced head and neck surgeon Natan Scher, M.D., at Ingalls. Dr. Scher has been implanting the devices for the last 10 years with a zero complication rate.

The device is programmed to send a few seconds of electrical energy to the vagus nerve every few minutes so treatment is automatic and continuous. What’s more, if an individual with a VNS feels a seizure coming on, he or she can activate the discharge of energy by passing a small magnet over the battery. In some people, it has the effect of stopping the seizure.

“The device is very similar to a pacemaker for the heart,” Dr. Scher said. “Once it’s implanted, it helps people almost immediately.” That was definitely the case with Adele.

“This is one of the best things, health wise, that’s happened to me,” she said. And with her seizures under control, Adele is back to doing what she loves best: traveling, hiking and swimming.

“I’m really attached to it,” she added. “Right from the beginning, it was a part of me. Basically, I can do anything I want.”

For more information about VNS therapy available at Ingalls, call Ingalls Care Connection at 708.915.CARE (2273).

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