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Brain Implants May Be Shut Down By Nearby Lightning Strikes, Doctors Warn

A new case study highlights potentially serious risks for patients receiving Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) treatments during thunderstorms, or other events that may generate strong electromagnetic fields and result in induction currents that cause damage to the brain. 

In a case study published in the Journal of Neurosurgery (JNS) on May 1, doctors describe how a European woman’s rechargeable DBS system shut off after lightning struck her apartment complex, due to the strong electromagnetic field (EMF) produced by the strike.

DBS systems are nuerostimulators that are typically implanted just under the muscle or skin in the upper chest to deliver electrical impulses to electrodes in areas of the brain to treat a variety of movement disorders, including Parkinson’s. The devices are also used to treat some mental health conditions for patients who do not receive sufficient relief from medication.

According to the report, the 66-year old European woman was being treated with a DBS system for neck dystonia, which is a painful and involuntary contraction of muscles, when her apartment was struck by lightning. The lightning bolt created an electromagnetic pulse that caused several electronic devices in the apartment to burn up, and turned off the DBS systems implantable pulse generator (IPG).

The patient reported that she noticed the device had turned off when the dystonic tremor reappeared within an hour of the storm subsiding. The IPG’s display screen was alerting the “Power On Reset” message, indicating the device needed to be restarted.

The case report, submitted by doctors from the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, is the first of its kind and indicates that natural forces such as thunderstorms, present a potential danger to users of DBS systems with IPGs, says co-author of the study Dr. Dusan Filsar.

Prior research has found that electromagnetic fields can be generated by various electrical devices at work, home or in the medical environment, however this case report introduces to the new risk of natural phenomenons.

When an electromagnetic field is introduced to an IPG, it can cause serious and potentially fatal outcomes to patients, the researchers warn. Patients with the implantable devices could be subject to an excessive current presented by a strong magnetic field, which could generate induction currents in implanted electrodes and even damage the brain.

Filsar and colleagues reported that patients with IPGs should be regularly warned by medical professionals to avoid environmental sources that could generate strong electromagnetic fields such as arc welding equipment, electronic power generators, electrical substations, ham radio antennas, power lines, microwave communication transmitters, industrial furnaces, induction heaters, resistance welders and transmission towers for television and radio signals.

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