Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) Surgery Treats Tourette Syndrome

Teen undergoes surgery to ease Tourette's | Watch the Video
June 23, 2011

SMITHTOWN, N.Y. (WABC) -- Tourette syndrome is a disorder in which the brain makes a person move or make sounds involuntarily.
It may be mild like a tic or severe and devastating.

In one severe case, a teenager's life is changed with an experimental surgery.

Tourette syndrome develops in children between the ages of 7 and 10.

It can be mild, like a blinking tic or a throat clearing tic and disappear after a few years.

Or it can be severe and almost unbearable, like it was in the case of young Robert Lettieri of Smithtown, Long Island.

Robbi's convulsions seemed to get worse and worse.

He had attacks that were uncontrollable, extreme and dangerous to him.

Now, the Smithtown teenager is able to address the press on stage about his experience over the last 6 months.

"It's night and day, like I've said in the past. I'm doing things I've never thought possible," Lettieri said.

Now he has two electrodes feeding new impulses into his brain from devices implanted in his chest.

Neurosurgeons at the movement disorders center at North Shore University Hospital on Long Island implanted the electrodes in February.

Tourette is believed to be caused by a misfiring of a brain signal.

"The electrodes provide continuous electrical stimulation and hopefully correct or alter the abnormal activity," said Dr. Alon Mogilner, of North Shore University Hospital.

Robbie's mom, Debbie says it was bad before the surgery.

"He had tics throughout the day but the big tics as we call them were coming every seven days and they would last about two hours long where he would continuously beat himself up," Debbie Lettieri said.

The surgery called deep brain stimulation is approved for Parkinson's and other movement disorders but is still considered experimental in treating Tourette syndrome.

But for Robbie and his family, the experiment has so far been successful.

"Robbie has his life back. We have our life back. There is happiness in our home," Debbie Lettieri said.

"It's certainly given me increased optimism, this being our second case, for this as a possibility for patients with really severe Tourette syndrome," said Dr. Michael Pourfar, of North Shore University Hospital.

The teenager who was never allowed out before is thrilled for new opportunities, even having a curfew.

"For the first time I have a curfew. I can drive; even walk down the street without having people look at me like I have 12 heads. It's really exciting," Lettieri said.

Tourette syndrome is more common in boys and for many children medications can control it.

However for a few, like Robbie, the effect is brutal.

Doctors are optimistic that the effect of the surgery will be long term.