Doctors research brain surgery that could be used to treat obesity

A team of doctors is researching how a certain type of brain surgery can be used to treat obesity.

Doctors at the Pittsburgh-based Allegheny Health Network are using an experimental brain surgery technique to try to change the patient’s metabolism.

It’s called deep brain stimulation and is also used to treat other things such as Parkinson’s disease, but doctors say it shows promise for obesity as well.

“All of the treatments for obesity right now are outside of the brain,” said Dr. Donald Whiting, the Chief Medical Officer & Chair of Neuroscience Institute at AHN. “But the brain is where a lot of the control and the energy balance and the desire is mediated.”

“I know how hard it is to deal with people’s prejudices against heavy people,” said Pamela Beach. “My heaviest weight was just over 400 pounds.”

The West Virginia woman is sharing her success story about how the experimental brain surgery helped her lose nearly half her weight.

“I haven’t found any miracle until I found this deep-brain stimulation,” said Beach.

Whiting explained the procedure involves putting an electrode in the hypothalamus, which is the food balance center. He then adjusts the electrical activity and realigns the circuitry in the brain to function more normally.

Beach went from 328 pounds at the time of the surgery to her current weight of 215 — but says it didn’t all come off at once.

Doctors adjusted the electrical settings in pacemakers positioned under her collarbones and she also went to a metabolic clinic.

“My blood sugars are under (better) control than they’ve been in a long time,” said Beach. “I don’t seem to get as hungry as I used to and I don’t think about food all the time.”

Beach says she has also kept the weight off better than any other thing she’s tried, including gastric bypass surgery.

“She had a slow, steady but sustained weight loss that was very meaningful and changed her overall risk of other diseases, but also changed her lifestyle,” said Whiting.

Beach was one of three people to take part in the initial trial more than 10 years ago. Now, Whiting wants to figure out why Beach in particular was successful, so he’s doing a second phase of the trial and looking for participants.

The AHN study is looking for six men and women, 22 to 65 years old, who have a body mass index higher than 50, and who are at significant risk of morbidity and mortality due to obesity. The participants also had to have had gastrointestinal bypass surgery without achieving sustainable results.

Neuroscience | Allegheny Health Network (ahn.org)

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