About one in 26 people will be diagnosed with epilepsy in their lifetime. That adds up to about 3.4 million people in the U.S., or about 1 percent of the population nationwide. This condition can have huge consequences on quality of life, affecting whether children will learn well in school, eventually drive a car, hold down a job or even survive into adulthood.
For most of those that develop epilepsy, medications can keep seizures in check. However, for about a third of patients, this strategy doesn’t work, says Chima Oluigbo, M.D., an attending neurosurgeon at Children’s National Health System. That’s when he and his team offer a surgical fix.
Epilepsy surgery has come a long way, Dr. Oluigbo explains. When he first began practicing in the early 2000s, most surgeries were open, he says – they involved making a long incision in the scalp that can span half a foot or more. After drilling out a window of skull that can be as long as five inches, surgeons had to dig through healthy brain to find the abnormal tissue and remove it.
Each part of this “maximally invasive” procedure can be traumatic on a patient, Dr. Oluigbo says. That leads to significant pain after the procedure, extended hospital stays of at least a week followed by a long recovery. There are also significant risks for neurological complications including stroke, weakness, paralysis, speech problems and more.
However, open surgery isn’t the only option for epilepsy surgery anymore. Several new minimally invasive alternatives are now available to patients and the most promising, Dr. Oluigbo says, is called Visualase. He and his team are the only surgeons in the region who perform this procedure.
In Visualase surgeries, Dr. Oluigbo and his colleagues start by making a tiny incision, about 5 millimeters, on the scalp. Through this opening, they bore an even tinier hole into the skull and thread a needle inside that’s about 1.6 millimeters wide. “The brain barely notices that it’s there,” he says.
The tip of this wire holds a laser. Once this tip is placed directly at the seizure foci – the cluster of nerve cells responsible for generating a seizure – the patient is placed in an intraoperative magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) device. There, after checking the tip’s precise placement, the surgeons turn the laser on. Heat from the laser eradicates the foci, which the surgeons can see in real time using MRI thermography technology. The margins of the destroyed tissue are well-defined, largely sparing healthy tissue.
After the wire is removed, the incision is closed with a single stitch, and patients go home the next day. The majority of patients are seizure free, with rates as high as 90 percent for some types of epilepsy, Dr. Oluigbo says. Although seizure-free rates are also high for open procedures, he adds, Visualase spares them many of open surgeries’ painful and difficult consequences.
“Having done both open surgeries and Visualase,” Dr. Oluigbo says, “I can tell you the difference is night and day.”
Although open procedures will still be necessary for some patients with particularly large foci that are close to the surface, Dr. Oluigbo says that Visualase is ideal for treating medication-resistant cases in which the foci are buried deep within the brain. A typical example is a condition called hypothalamic hamartoma, in which tumors on the hypothalamus lead to gelastic seizures, an unusual seizure type characterized by uncontrollable laughing. He also uses Visualase for another condition called tuberous sclerosis, in which waxy growths called tubers develop in the brain, and for cancerous and benign brain tumors.
It’s gratifying to be able to help these children become seizure-free for the rest of their lives, says Dr. Oluigbo – even more so with the numerous updates he receives from families telling him how much this procedure has improved their children’s lifestyle.
“Visualase has completely changed the way that we approach these patients,” Dr. Oluigbo says. “It’s extraordinary to see the effects that this one procedure can have on the quality of life for patients here at Children’s National.”