A lightning strike that hit a woman’s apartment caused so much electromagnetic interference that it actually turned off her brain stimulation device.
The extraordinary case – thought to be the first of its kind – has been reported this week in the Journal of Neurosurgery, with the researchers warning those that have such device been a little more cautious about how and when they charge them up.
Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is a treatment that involves drilling a small hole in the skull and inserting electrodes that send out electrical impulses to stimulate particular regions of the brain. For patients with conditions such as Parkinson’s or essential tremors, the part targeted is typically that which governs motor control and prevents the shakes by modulating the brain's signals.
The implants are only used for those whose symptoms cannot be controlled through medication, due to its highly invasive nature, but this is usually outweighed by the advantage that it is entirely reversible. Clearly, though, it may come with some other unforeseen risks.
The device can be damaged by strong electromagnetic interference, which generates induction currents in the implanted electrodes that can potentially damage the brain. Normally, the risks considered are from other electronic devices such as metal detectors. This, however, is the first ever reported case of a lightning strike influencing the device.
The 66-year-old Slovenian woman had a DBS inserted to help prevent persistent neck muscle spasms. She was at home when the apartment was struck by lightning, causing her TV and air conditioning unit to burn out. For about an hour she did not realize there was any other damage, until her neck tremors began to return.
Taking herself to the doctors, they found that her DBS device, while still charged, and been turned off by the sudden blast of electromagnetic interference from the lightning storm.
This time, the result – while clearly not great – was thankfully not particularly harmful, but the researchers stress that the consequences could be a lot more serious in other circumstances.
In order to charge the brain implant, those who have them hold a charging plate to the device, which itself needs juice. The doctors noted that sometimes patients will simply plug the charging plate into the mains, and then use it directly on their implant, but are now warning that this could clearly carry some significant risks with it. Put simply, if there was a surge of electricity in the mains, it could potentially fry their brains.