GRAND RAPIDS, MI – A woman who has had epilepsy for more than three decades has received a groundbreaking treatment – a pacemaker-like device implanted in the brain to deliver electric stimulation to prevent seizures.
Amy Owen, a 44-year-old woman from Marshall, became the first patient in Michigan to receive the newly approved device during surgery May 6 at Spectrum Health, officials said Monday, May 19. Spectrum is one of only 10 epilepsy centers in the U.S. approved to implant the device.
Owen hopes it will be life-changing.
She has lived with epilepsy since she was 11. She suffered a grand mal seizure while in a swimming pool during a school outing. The principal pulled her from the pool and revived her.
Over the years, Owen has tried many medications, but her condition has been growing worse. At times, she suffers back-to-back grand mal seizures, said her husband, Mike. Sometimes at night, her face and legs twitch continually.
“I haven’t driven for almost three years,” Owen said. “It’s very hard, because I’m a very independent person.”
The device she received, a NeuroPace Responsive Neurostimulation (RNS) System, is about 3-by-6 centimeters. Implanted in the brain, it is designed to detect abnormal electrical activity that indicates a seizure is about to occur. It delivers a small electrical stimulation – undetectable by the patient – to normalize brain activity and prevent the seizure.
The device offers one more option for patients who can’t control their epilepsy with medication, said Dr. Kost Elisevich, the head of neurosurgery at Spectrum.
In many cases, doctors are able to treat epilepsy with surgery. They map the area of the brain where the seizures originate and operate to remove a part of the brain.
But about 10 percent of the patients Elisevich sees at Spectrum’s epilepsy center are not candidates for surgery because of the area of the brain that is affected.
In Owen’s case, the seizures originate in an area of the left frontal lobe involved with memory. Removing that part of the brain could potentially cause memory problems.
“You want your patient to be seizure-free, but you don’t want to make them any different than they have been,” Elisevich said.
In the operation May 6, Elisevich implanted the RNS device, which includes two arrays of electrodes. It’s too early to tell the effect the device will have for Owen, he said.
For now, the computer implanted in Owen’s brain is monitoring electrical signals. Every day, she holds a wand-like device near her head. It picks up data from the RNS system and transmits it to the epilepsy specialists at Spectrum Health.
The doctors are analyzing the information to determine the signals that indicate a seizure is about to occur. The device will be programmed to deliver electrical stimulation at the onset of a seizure.
“That signal will be enough to interrupt the brain from proceeding with that seizure,” Elisevich said.
Elisevich was involved in early clinical trials for the device when he was a Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. He has seen dramatic responses in some cases.
“We had some patients presenting to us who had a terrific number of seizures on a daily basis,” he said. “To witness the effect the device had on them was astounding in some circumstances.”
Some were nearly seizure-free, he said.
NeuroPace, the maker of the RNS system, said research showed 55 percent of patients experienced a 50 percent reduction in seizures.
Living with seizures is hard physically and emotionally, Owen said.
“It’s very draining,” she said.
“She has a lot of fear – am I going to wake up from the next one?” Mike Owen said.
If the treatment is successful, Owen hopes to lead a more active, more independent life. She wants to be able to take her three grandchildren on outings.
And she would love to be free from worry about when the next seizure will occur.
“I would be ecstatic if it just takes them away,” Owen said.