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Deep brain stimulation surgery helps one man get back to his life

Life had taken an unexpected turn for Lewis Derry. At age 22, the Twin Cities potter became ill with depression and anxiety, and over the next four years he developed an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) so severe that everyday tasks—from locking doors to following the thread of a conversation—became nearly impossible.

The illness and the suicidal thoughts that accompanied it left Derry housebound, unable to be near sharp tools, afraid of crowds, and socially isolated from friends.

He sought psychiatric help and tried a series of antidepressant and antianxiety drugs, but a genetic test showed that his liver was not capable of optimally processing the medication. Then, under the care of University of Minnesota psychiatrist Jon Grant, M.D., J.D., M.P.H., he learned that deep brain stimulation (DBS) surgery might help him.

Two years ago the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted a “humanitarian device exemption” for DBS, allowing it to be used to address severe OCD. (Too few people have undergone the treatment to qualify for full approval.)

The approach makes sense to University neurosurgeon Aviva Abosch, M.D., Ph.D., who specializes in DBS for the FDA-approved treatments of essential tremor, Parkinson’s, and dystonia.

“Patients with OCD have abnormal metabolic activity within the brain and get into endless loops” of impulses, she says. Although it’s unclear exactly how DBS works, she adds, it appears that DBS overrides electrical transmissions in the brain by stimulating a particular area without destroying any tissue.

In August, Derry became the first person in Minnesota to undergo DBS surgery for OCD. One of the first sensations he noticed was the haze of his depression lifting.

The treatment is still in its early stages. “We don’t yet know what subtypes of patients with OCD will be helped by DBS in order to stratify the likelihood of improvement,” Abosch notes.

But Derry found that, for him, DBS offered a new outlook. Several months after the surgery, he has found that his obsessive thoughts have begun to abate. He’s tapering off his medications and continuing to learn how to halt patterns of cyclic thinking.

“It’s a process,” explains Derry, who has enrolled in pottery classes again and is eager to rebuild his career. “I’m hopeful.”

To learn how you can support DBS research, please contact Catherine McGlinch at 612-626-5456 or c.mcglinch@mmf.umn.edu.

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