White, Maureen, and Lee Ferran, “Surgery Fine-Tunes Legendary Banjo Player’s Brain.” ABC News (October 3, 2008). Accessed Tuesday, December 17, 2009. Available from: http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/AheadoftheCurve/story?id=5941480&page=1
This news article described the case of Eddie Adcock, a successful bluegrass banjo player who fairly late in life developed an essential tremor. Essential tremor is a progressive neurological disorder that causes the hands and arms to shake uncontrollably. It had an immense impact on his playing to the point where he could barely play. It was decided that deep brain stimulation (the surgical implantation into the thalamus of a device which sends electrical impulses to interrupt the tremor) was the best solution in this case. Deep brain stimulation has been very successful for controlling essential tremor, but the medical team had the additional challenge of making sure that Adcock regained his musical dexterity. The article includes video footage of Adcock playing the banjo during surgery, using his facility at the instrument to determine when they had reached the correct area in the brain.
Reading this article and watching the video was entirely fascinating. I must admit that I know little of banjo music, but I can’t even begin to imagine how devastating it would be to have devoted your life to music only to have your skills suddenly taken away from you. The seemingly almost daily advances in medical procedures and technology never cease to amaze me. It is interesting to note that it seems more and more often brain surgery is being done with the patient awake, to measure the results of what is being done. It must have been quite the challenge for Adcock to manage to play during brain surgery. That would be an incredibly difficult situation in which to perform.
The video included with the article showed footage of a follow-up appointment where Adcock was asked to first draw a spiral, sign his name, then play the banjo with the device turned off then on. It was absolutely astounding to see the difference, especially in his playing. With the device off, he stumbled and his fingers shook enough to create tapping noise on the instrument.
The way this article is written, it sounds as though this was the first time this procedure was attempted on a skilled musician. I wonder whether this has since become more commonplace. Would it be performed on young people also? In high school, I had a friend who suffered with an essential tremor of the hands. An interesting question would be whether this procedure could make it possible for those with an earlier onset of symptoms to contemplate careers that otherwise would have been entirely impossible. I am not only thinking of musical careers, but anything requiring precision in movement.