Violinist Plays through His Own Brain Surgery

I saw a fascinating news story on Good Morning America several weeks ago about Minnesota Orchestra Concertmaster Roger Frisch. Back in 2009, Frisch was diagnosed with essential tremors, which is a condition that occurs when sections of the brain that control movement start sending abnormal signals. The condition most often affects hand movements. In Frisch’s case, the hand which held the violin bow was shaking uncontrollably, a potentially career-ending problem.

After other medical therapy did not work, Dr. Kendall Lee, director of the Mayo Clinic Neural engineering laboratory, proceeded with deep brain stimulation. Here is info from the ABC news story:

Lee and his team of surgeons found the area of Frisch’s brain sending abnormal signals and implanted two electrodes. That allowed tiny electronic pulses to be sent from a pacemaker-like device into the brain.

“We can place a recording device in the brain and hear the tremors,” said Lee.

While it is not known exactly how DBS works, many doctors believe that it stops the abnormal brain activity, which stops the tremors.

“Just touching the brain at the right location oftentimes improves the tremors dramatically,” said Lee.

That’s exactly what happened during Frisch’s surgery. He lay down on the operating table, and after the second lead was placed into his brain, began to play his violin. The stimulation greatly reduced the number of tremors, although he will probably experience some tremors for the rest of his life.

I found this story fascinating because I once had a student with a similar problem. Several years ago, I taught a wonderful lady in her 70s who loved to play the viola. However, her bow hand shook uncontrollably. Her left hand would also shake when she was nervous. At our very first lesson, she told me about her problem. She said that she did not have Parkinson’s disease, and her doctor had diagnosed her with tremors that did not have a particular cause. She never called her condition “essential tremors”, although may never have been diagnosed as such. She was frustrated by her tremors, and no matter how hard we worked, we couldn’t overcome the shaking. We never discussed how the tremors affected the rest of her life outside of music, but it is reassuring to know that a treatment now exists for people who suffer from this condition.

For more information, please check out this ABC news video.

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