Roger Frisch wasn’t just trying to make it into the record books when he played his violin, awake during brain surgery, he was actually assisting doctors who needed to locate the source of a condition know as essential tremors.
Frisch, who made his living as a concert violinist, developed a very mild–almost unnoticeable–tremor issue that worsened over a period of a few years, and while he could have worked any number of jobs without issue, the tremors were enough to disrupt his musical ability.
SEE ALSO: Top 9 ways to exercise your brain
Essential tremors, according to the Mayo Clinic where Frisch eventually had his procedure, is a nervous system disorder that causes a rhythmic shaking.
Any part of the body can be affected, but tremors are mostly noticed in the hands. While generally considered harmless, some individuals have tremors so strong they have difficulty performing everyday tasks such as drinking out of a glass or tying their shoes.
While there are medications to try and manage essential tremors, doctors handling Roger’s case decided his best chance of regaining his musical career was to undergo deep brain stimulation, a procedure where an electrode is inserted into the brain, allowing the patient to manually interrupt the brain when tremors start, effectively preventing them.
“In deep brain stimulation, doctors insert a long, thin electrical probe into your thalamus, the portion of your brain that causes your tremors,” states the Mayo Clinic. “A wire from the probe runs under your skin to a pacemaker-like device (neurostimulator) implanted in your chest. This device transmits painless electrical pulses to interrupt signals from your thalamus that may be causing your tremors.”
So why was it necessary for Roger Frisch to play his violin while having deep brain stimulation?
The answer is simply that the patient is the best guide when it comes to viewing how well the electrode is working. By playing the violin while doctors placed the probe, the team was able to monitor Frisch’s tremors and ensure they had ideal placement of the electrode before completing the procedure. Because the brain cannot feel any pain, there was no issue with having Frisch awake while he was being worked on.
In a follow-up interview with String Visions, Frisch indicated his tremors are now “nonexistent” and after 4 weeks he was able to resume his employment with the Minnesota Orchestra.
Side-effects of deep brain stimulation are considered rare, but do include headaches, problems with balance and muscle weakness, but Frisch has reported none of these. Even when they do occur, they often go away on their own or with a minor adjustment to the placement of the electrode in the brain.