Web Producer: Amber Griswold
A treatment known as Vagus Nerve Stimulation is already doing wonders for patients living with epilepsy. Now, studies are underway to see if the nerve stimulation can treat other illnesses.
Chronic depression, Alzheimer's Disease, anxiety disorders, migraine headaches and even obesity may benefit from Vagus Nerve Stimulation. It's already virtually eliminating seizures for some patients with epilepsy, a neurological disorder sometimes described as an electrical storm in the brain. USI student, Erin Gray, is one of them.
Usually patients with epilepsy don't know why they have it, but that's not the case for Erin Gray.
Erin explained, "I was 12. I was knocked on the left side of the head with a softball and then a couple weeks after that I started having seizures."
Medication did little to prevent these episodes and by high school, she was having five or six grand mal seizures a week, many of them at school.
Erin described the experience, saying, "I would be called many, many names because of the seizures and it was just hard to make friends because they didn't know what it was like to be me."
At 19, Indianapolis Doctor Robert Alonso suggested Vagus Nerve Stimulation. It works using this pacemaker-like device, which is just two inches across and weighs only a couple of ounces. Inside is a lithium battery and a microprocessor. It's surgically implanted under the collar bone. Wires lead up to the Vagus Nerve in the neck. The device sends a series of tiny electrical impulses to the nerve, which leads to a part of the brain where the so-called electrical storm is happening.
If Erin feels a seizure coming on, she can activate the device by swiping it with a magnet. Otherwise, it comes on every five minutes and stays on for 60 seconds. In fact, you can hear a slight change in her voice when it starts working.
Erin said, "When the seizures decreased and it got a lot better for me, that was my time to go away. I told my parents, 'I know, I'm 22-years old, but this is my time to finally get away."
The Madison, Indiana native enrolled at USI to study social work. Her parents can sleep well at night knowing V.N.S. Therapy has cut down Erin's seizures to just one or two mild ones a month, which is very manageable for this newly independent young woman.
Study results provided by the company that makes the implants show one third of patients treated with V.N.S. Therapy experience a major improvement in seizure control and another third experience at least some improvement.
It's fair to point out that this is a last resort surgery, only patients who don't respond to medication can be considered for it.