Surgeons will use Maine-made medical equipment during a brain surgery that will be broadcast live by the National Geographic Channel on Sunday night.

FHC, Inc.– which has about 100 employees worldwide, 80 of them in Bowdoin – produces medical equipment and software used in more than half of the 10,000 or so deep brain stimulation surgeries performed every year around the world, company officials said. During Sunday’s 9 p.m. surgery, a Parkinson’s disease patient will be awake during the operation at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland.

In deep brain stimulation, doctors insert a metallic-silicone electrode into the brain, guided by medical equipment produced by FHC or other companies. The medical devices help doctors locate where to place the electrode so that it’s most effective for the patient, said Bryan Briggs, FHC’s vice president.

“We can capture signals that the neuron in the human brain is emitting,” said Briggs, explaining that the signals are both visual and audio. “It sounds like static from an AM radio, that crackling noise you hear.”

Briggs said neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s and dystonia, are caused by neurons in the brain “misfiring.” The electrode can greatly reduce symptoms that the patient is experiencing, such as difficulty walking or talking, tremors and involuntary movements.

The Food and Drug Administration approved deep brain stimulation 12 years ago, and it can be used for neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and essential tremor. Scientists are also studying how effective it can be for epilepsy, Alzheimer’s and dementia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and Tourette syndrome, among other diseases.

According to Mayo Clinic Proceedings, a scholarly medical journal, the procedure has proven to be extremely effective, while complications from the surgery have dwindled. Meanwhile, the journal reported that the surgery is a promising treatment for a number of other neurological diseases.

“Deep brain stimulation has developed during the past 20 years as a remarkable treatment option for several different disorders,” the journal reported. “The spectrum of disease to which deep brain stimulation surgery has been applied during the past decade continues to expand.”

Briggs said that during the surgery, doctors will drill a hole in the skull about the diameter of a nickel so the medical devices can be inserted. The electrode – which is about 1/3 of an inch long with a diameter of pencil lead – is typically placed about 50 millimeters into the brain.

The patient is awake during the surgery, and by following doctor’s instructions, such as by talking, wiggling toes or moving an arm, it can help doctors determine where best to place the electrode.

Briggs said the surgery can have immediate benefits.

“Once the electrode is implanted, you can see almost instantaneous results with the patient’s mobility,” Briggs said. “It’s very emotional for everyone in the room, from the patient, to surgeons and the families.”

In Maine, surgeries of this type are performed at Maine Medical Center.

Briggs said the surgeries are still rare because patients are often afraid to be awake during the procedures, and because drug treatments have been effective. For instance, only 2 percent of Parkinson’s disease patients get the surgery. But Briggs said the procedure is still relatively new, and he expects the number of patients receiving deep brain stimulation surgeries will increase in the coming years.

To meet expected demand, FHC expects to hire more than 10 additional employees in the next few years, Briggs said. In addition to Maine, FHC has offices in Greenville, Pennsylvania, Romania and Columbia.

He said it’s “exciting and rewarding” to have the company’s products featured on television and reach a wider audience.


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