Guitar-playing brain surgery patient returns to UCLA to share his story
By Rebecca Kendall July 10, 2013
UCLA Newsroom video. More: Brad Carter patient story
In late May, people all over the world were intrigued to see a series of six-second online videos depicting a man playing a box-shaped guitar while undergoing brain surgery at UCLA.
Brad Carter was no stranger to cameras, but the Studio City-based actor, artist and musician had never performed in quite such an unusual forum.
On Wednesday, he returned to campus, guitar in hand, to play two original songs and to share his experience with a surgical procedure that is proving to be instrumental in helping him regain his quality of life.
Carter, a talented guitar player who has acted in commercials and on TV shows like "CSI: NY," "The Mentalist" and "Bones," began experiencing hand tremors in the summer of 2006 that made it next to impossible for him to play his guitar or produce artwork. He went to a neurologist, who diagnosed his condition as benign essential tremor, a neurological disorder that caused his hands to shake uncontrollably.
With medications proving ineffective in his case, Carter began to look at other options and learned of UCLA’s history with deep brain stimulation, a surgical treatment in which doctors implant electrodes into a patient’s brain to channel electrical impulses and hopefully halt the tremors. The procedure is primarily used for patients who have Parkinson's disease, dystonia and, like Carter, essential tremor.
"Once I started doing the research on it and started learning that this was an option, I never second guessed it. I sought [Dr. Nader Pouratian] out… It was an easy decision for me," said Carter, who became the 500th patient to receive DBS treatment at UCLA. "For me, to not be able to play guitar is torturous."
It was also an easy decision to allow cameras into the operating room on May 23 to capture and share every moment live, using a social media tool called Vine.
"I thought the school would see it and some students and some doctors, and then that morning they asked if they could twitter it and I said ‘Twitter away, cause who’s going to see it?,'" recalled Carter.
"For him, playing guitar is very important, and so we thought bringing the guitar into the operating room would be a unique opportunity to show [the procedure] and see if we’d be able to affect that function and help him play the guitar better," said Pouratian, an assistant professor of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, director of its neurosurgery movement disorders program and a leading expert on Parkinson's disease and essential tremor.
Once the videos were posted, they quickly made their way around the world. Millions of people have watched them, including the likes of William Shatner who, like many, shared them with their fans, friends and followers.
The videos proved to be a mix of entertainment and education, which is important for Pouratian and the comprehensive team of doctors who continue to work with Carter to ensure the best possible outcome for him. "The responses that I’ve gotten have been outstanding," said Pouratian. "I think for the most part, especially from the movement disorder community, people who suffer from these diseases, it’s been a resounding ‘thank you for letting us know about this, letting us come into the operating room and telling the world about this procedure.'"
Carter underwent a follow up procedure on June 11. He has wires inserted into the left side of his head, routed through his neck and connected to a pacemaker that rests under his left armpit. He continues to see Pouratian and his medical team for follow-up visits to fine-tune the programming of the electrodes with attention to frequency, strength and length of the electrical pulses in his brain.
"If you do the math, there are hundreds of thousands of iterations of how you can stimulate someone’s brain, even with a precise localization, and we want to make that as perfect as possible....That’s the phase we’re in with Brad at this point," said Pouratian. "We’re really only at the beginning of his programming, starting to see some improvement, and with time we will see more and more improvement as we get the programming better and as his brain adapts to that stimulation."
According to Pouratian, 100,000 such surgeries have been performed worldwide. There are an estimated 180,000 people in the United States who could be candidates for this treatment. This procedure, Pouratian emphasized, is not a cure for any of the conditions it treats. Each patient responds differently to treatment, he said.
Carter is just happy that he's able to play the guitar better now than before the surgery. He's looking forward to going into the studio. "There’s nothing like losing a skill that you were really good at to make you want to have that skill back," Carter said. "I can’t wait to be creative again and I can’t wait to play guitar again. I’m very excited to record an album as this gets better."