[Editor's Note: On June 6, 2017, Anne Shabason, an artist, hospice educator, and mother of two from Bolton, Ontario, a small town about 30 miles outside of Toronto, underwent Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) to treat her Parkinson's disease. The FDA approved DBS for Parkinson's disease in 2002. Although it's shown to be safe and effective, agreeing to invasive brain surgery is no easy decision, even when you have your family and one of North America's premier neurosurgeons at your side.
Here, with support from Stan, her husband of the past 40 years, Anne talks about her life before Parkinson's, what the disease took away, and what she got back because of DBS. As told to writer Heather R. Johnson.]
I was an artist.
I worked in mixed media, Papier-mâché, and collage, inspired by dreams, birds, mystery. I had gallery shows and participated in studio tours.
Educated in thanatology, I worked in hospice care as a volunteer and education director for Hospice Caledon, an organization that supports people facing life-limiting illness and grief.
I trained volunteers who helped people through their transition.
Parkinson's disease changed all that.
My hands and my head were not coordinating, so it was impossible to do my art.
It started as a twitch in my leg. During a hospice workshop, my right leg started vibrating in a way I hadn't experienced before. I told a friend, "This can't be good."
Over the next year, my right foot vibrated more and more. I could not sleep well. In my dreams people lurked in corners, in dark places, and behind castle doors. I knew they were there and couldn't avoid the ambush. I shrieked and woke everyone in the house.
An anxiety attack—something I had also never experienced before—came next.
During a class I was teaching, my mouth got so dry, I couldn't speak. I stood in front of the class for three or four minutes, unable to continue. I pushed through and finished the class. That's when I realized this was more than jiggling legs.
That's when I went to see a doctor.
My first doctor, when I suggested it might be Parkinson's, didn't believe me. She sent me to a neurologist who told me I had to meditate more and calm myself.
A friend from hospice told me to phone the Toronto Western Hospital Movement Disorders Clinic. In January 2010, I was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.
The doctor, a fellow, got all my stats and asked a lot of questions. He was so excited he knew what it was, he exclaimed, "You've got Parkinson's!" like it was the best thing ever. I must say, that wasn't the best news, but at least I finally had a diagnosis.
I could choose whether to take medication or not. The doctor said, "If Parkinson's is compromising your lifestyle, you should consider taking levodopa."
"Well I can't run my classes, I can't do my art, so it's compromising me," I said. And my health was going downhill. The shaking—my whole body moved—sleeping was horrible. Two to four hours max a night was usual. I had terrible anxiety and panic attacks and had to quit work.
So I started taking levodopa. It's taken in a four-hour cycle, but the medication didn't last the full time. I developed dyskenisia, a side effect of the medication that made me experience uncontrolled, involuntary movements. I was edgy, irritable, and focused on my watch like a drug addict. I'd lie on the couch, feel crummy and tired, and wait.
The medication cycle restricted where I could go. Fearing the "off" period, I avoided interaction with lifelong friends, which increased my feeling of social isolation. They would come over and cook with me and read to me sometimes, and that was fine, as long as it was during an "on" period.
There was incontinence, constipation, and fatigue.
I lost fine motor skills, like writing. And painting. My hands and my head were not coordinating, so it was impossible to do my art.
It was a terrible time.
The worst symptoms—what pushed me to consider DBS—were the symptoms no one could see. The anxiety and depression were so bad, the sleeplessness, not eating.
I projected a lot of my discomforts onto Stan. I reacted so badly to him. I actually separated from him briefly on two separate occasions and lived in a separate space—a self-imposed isolation. There wasn't anything he could do to help me really except sit back and watch.
I tried alternative therapies—a naturopath, an osteopath, a reflexologist and a Chinese medicine practitioner—but nothing seemed to help.
I felt like I was dying. Certain parts of my life were being taken away from me. I was a perfectionist, and I felt imperfect. It was a horrible feeling, to not be in control of myself.
The DBS Decision
I was familiar with DBS, a procedure that involves a neurosurgeon drilling small holes into your skull and implanting electrical leads deep in your brain to modify neural activity, reducing involuntary movements.
But I was convinced I'd never do it. I was brought up in a family that believed 'doctors make you sick and hospitals kill you.'
I worried the room wouldn't be sterile. Someone's cutting into your brain, you don't know what's going to happen. They're putting things in your body. I didn't want to risk possible infection.
And my doctor said he couldn't promise he would actually do the operation. It might be a fellow, but he'd be in the background in case anything went wrong. I wasn't comfortable with that arrangement.
When filmmakers Taryn Southern and Elena Gaby decided to make a documentary about people whose lives were changed by cutting-edge brain implants--and I agreed to participate—my doctor said he would for sure do the operation. They couldn't risk anything happening on the operating table on camera, so most of my fears went away.
My family supported the decision. My mother had trigeminal neuralgia, which is a very painful facial condition. She also had a stroke and what we now believe to be Parkinson's. My father, a retired dentist, managed her care and didn't give her the opportunity to see a specialist.
I felt them running the knife across my scalp, and drilling two holes in my head, but only as pressure, not pain.
When we were talking about DBS, my son, Joseph, said, "How can you not do this, for the sake of your family? Because if you don't, you'll end up like Grandma, who, for the last few years of her life, just lay on a couch because she didn't get any kind of outside help. If you even have a chance to improve your life or give yourself five extra years, why wouldn't you do that, for our sake? Are we not worth that?"
That talk really affected me, and I realized I had to try. Even though it was difficult, I had to be brave for my family.
Surgery, Recovery, and Tweaking
You have to be awake for part of the procedure—I was awake enough that my subconscious could hear, because they had to know how far to insert the electrodes. DBS targets the troublemaking areas of the brain. There's a one millimeter difference between success and failure.
I felt them running the knife across my scalp, and drilling two holes in my head, but only as pressure, not pain.
Once they were inside, they asked me to move parts of my body to see whether the right neurons were activated.
They put me to sleep to put a battery-powered neurostimulator in my chest. A wire that runs behind my ear and down my neck connects the electrodes in my brain to the battery pack. The neurostimulator creates electric pulses 24 hours a day.
I was moving around almost immediately after surgery. Recovery from the stitches took a few weeks, but everything else took a lot longer.
I couldn't read. My motor skills were still impaired, and my brain and my hands weren't yet linked up. I needed the device to be programmed and tweaked. Until that happened, I needed help.
The depression and anxiety, though, went away almost immediately. From that perspective, it was like I never had Parkinson's. I was so happy.
When they calibrated the electrodes, they adjusted how much electrical current goes to any one of four contact points on the left and right sides of the brain. If they increased it too much, a leg would start shaking, a foot would start cramping, or my tongue would feel thicker. It took a while to get it calibrated correctly to control the symptoms.
First it was five sessions in five weeks, then once a month, then every three months. Now I visit every six months. As the disease progresses, they have the ability to keep making adjustments. (DBS controls the symptoms, but it doesn't cure the disease.)
Once they got the calibration right, my motor skills improved. I could walk without shuffling. My muscles weren't stiff and aching, and the dyskinesia disappeared. But if I turn off the device, my symptoms return almost immediately.
Some days I have more fatigue than others, and sometimes my brain doesn't click. And my voice got softer – that's a common side effect of this operation. But I'm doing so much better than before.
I have a quality of life I didn't have before. Before COVID-19 hit, Stan and I traveled, went to concerts, movies, galleries, and spent time with our growing family.
Anne in her home studio with her art, 2019.
I cut back the levodopa from seven-and-a-half pills a day to two-and-a-half. I often forget to take my medication until I realize I'm feeling tired or anxious.
Best of all, my motivation and creative ability have clicked in.
I am an artist—again.
I'm painting every day. It's what is keeping me sane. It's my saving grace.
I'm not perfect. But I am Anne. Again.
Amber Freed felt she was the happiest mother on earth when she gave birth to twins in March 2017. But that euphoric feeling began to fade over the next few months, as she realized her son wasn't making the same developmental milestones as his sister. "I had a perfect benchmark because they were twins, and I saw that Maxwell was floppy—he didn't have muscle tone and couldn't hold his neck up," she recalls. At first doctors placated her with statements that boys sometimes develop slower than girls, but the difference was just too drastic. At 10 month old, Maxwell had never reached to grab a toy. In fact, he had never even used his hands.
Thinking that perhaps Maxwell couldn't see well, Freed took him to an ophthalmologist who was the first to confirm her worst fears. He didn't find Maxwell to have vision problems, but he thought there was something wrong with the boy's brain. He had seen similar cases before and they always turned out to be rare disorders, and always fatal. "Start preparing yourself for your child not to live," he had said.
Getting the diagnosis took months of painful, invasive procedures, as well as fighting with the health insurance to get the genetic testing approved. Finally, in June 2018, doctors at the Children's Hospital Colorado gave the Freeds their son's diagnosis—a genetic mutation so rare it didn't even have a name, just a bunch of letters jammed together into a word SLC6A1—same as the name of the mutated gene. The mutation, with only 40 cases known worldwide at the time, caused developmental disabilities, movement and speech disorders, and a debilitating form of epilepsy.
The doctors didn't know much about the disorder, but they said that Maxwell would also regress in his development when he turned three or four. They couldn't tell how long he would live. "Hopefully you would become an expert and educate us about it," they said, as they gave Freed a five-page paper on the SLC6A1 and told her to start calling scientists if she wanted to help her son in any way. When she Googled the name, nothing came up. She felt horrified. "Our disease was too rare to care."
Freed's husband, a 6'2'' college football player broke down in sobs and she realized that if anything could be done to help Maxwell, she'd have be the one to do it. "I understood that I had to fight like a mother," she says. "And a determined mother can do a lot of things."
The Freed family.
Courtesy Amber Freed
She quit her job as an equity analyst the day of the diagnosis and became a full-time SLC6A1 citizen scientist looking for researchers studying mutations of this gene. In the wee hours of the morning, she called scientists in Europe. As the day progressed, she called researchers on the East Coast, followed by the West in the afternoon. In the evening, she switched to Asia and Australia. She asked them the same question. "Can you help explain my gene and how do we fix it?"
Scientists need money to do research, so Freed launched Milestones for Maxwell fundraising campaign, and a SLC6A1 Connect patient advocacy nonprofit, dedicated to improving the lives of children and families battling this rare condition. And then it became clear that the mutation wasn't as rare as it seemed. As other parents began to discover her nonprofit, the number of known cases rose from 40 to 100, and later to 400, Freed says. "The disease is only rare until it messes with the wrong mother."
It took one mother to find another to start looking into what's happening inside Maxwell's brain. Freed came across Jeanne Paz, a Gladstone Institutes researcher who studies epilepsy with particular interest in absence or silent seizures—those that don't manifest by convulsions, but rather make patients absently stare into space—and that's one type of seizures Maxwell has. "It's like a brief period of silence in the brain during which the person doesn't pay attention to what's happening, and as soon as they come out of the seizure they are back to life," Paz explains. "It's like a pause button on consciousness." She was working to understand the underlying biology.
To understand how seizures begin, spread and stop, Paz uses optogenetics in mice. From words "genetic" and "optikós," which means visible in Greek, the optogenetics technique involves two steps. First, scientists introduce a light-sensitive gene into a specific brain cell type—for example into excitatory neurons that release glutamate, a neurotransmitter, which activates other cells in the brain. Then they implant a very thin optical fiber into the brain area where they forged these light-sensitive neurons. As they shine the light through the optical fiber, researchers can make excitatory neurons to release glutamate—or instead tell them to stop being active and "shut up". The ability to control what these neurons of interest do, quite literally sheds light onto where seizures start, how they propagate and what cells are involved in stopping them.
"Let's say a seizure started and we shine the light that reduces the activity of specific neurons," Paz explains. "If that stops the seizure, we know that activating those cells was necessary to maintain the seizure." Likewise, shutting down their activity will make the seizure stop.
Freed reached out to Paz in 2019 and the two women had an instant connection. They were both passionate about brain and seizures research, even if for different reasons. Freed asked Paz if she would study her son's seizures and Paz agreed.
To do that, Paz needed mice that carried the SLC6A1 mutation, so Freed found a company in China that created them to specs. The company replaced a mouse SLC6A1 gene with a human mutated one and shipped them over to Paz's lab. "We call them Maxwell mice," Paz says, "and we are now implanting electrodes into them to see which brain regions generate seizures." That would help them understand what goes wrong and what brain cells are malfunctioning in the SLC6A1 mice—and help scientists better understand what might cause seizures in children.
Bred to carry SLC6A1 mutation, these "Maxwell mice" will help better understand this debilitating genetic disease. (These mice are from Vanderbilt University, where researchers are also studying SLC6A1.)
Courtesy Amber Freed
This information—along with other research Amber is funding in other institutions—will inform the development of a novel genetic treatment, in which scientists would deploy a harmless virus to deliver a healthy, working copy of the SLC6A1 gene into the mice brains. They would likely deliver the therapeutic via a spinal tap infusion, and if it works and doesn't produce side effects in mice, the human trials will follow.
In the meantime, Freed is raising money to fund other research of various stop-gap measures. On April 22, 2021, she updated her Milestone for Maxwell page with a post that her nonprofit is funding yet another effort. It is a trial at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, in which doctors will use an already FDA-approved drug, which was recently repurposed for the SLC6A1 condition to treat epilepsy in these children. "It will buy us time," Freed says—while the gene therapy effort progresses.
Freed is determined to beat SLC6A1 before it beats down her family. She hopes to put an end to this disease—and similar genetic diseases—once and for all. Her goal is not only to have scientists create a remedy, but also to add the mutation to a newborn screening panel. That way, children born with this condition in the future would receive gene therapy before they even leave the hospital.
"I don't want there to be another Maxwell Freed," she says, "and that's why I am fighting like a mother." The gene therapy trial still might be a few years away, but the Weill Cornell one aims to launch very soon—possibly around Mother's Day. This is yet another milestone for Maxwell, another baby step forward—and the best gift a mother can get.
This virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines for children and teens. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.
Thursday, May 13th, 2021
12:30 p.m. - 1:45 p.m. EDT
Virtual on Zoom
You can submit a question for the speakers upon registering.
Dr. H. Dele Davies, M.D., MHCM
Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean for Graduate Studies at the University of Nebraska Medical (UNMC). He is an internationally recognized expert in pediatric infectious diseases and a leader in community health.
Dr. Emily Oster, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics at Brown University. She is a best-selling author and parenting guru who has pioneered a method of assessing school safety.
Dr. Tina Q. Tan, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. She has been involved in several vaccine survey studies that examine the awareness, acceptance, barriers and utilization of recommended preventative vaccines.
Dr. Inci Yildirim, M.D., Ph.D., M.Sc.
Associate Professor of Pediatrics (Infectious Disease); Medical Director, Transplant Infectious Diseases at Yale School of Medicine; Associate Professor of Global Health, Yale Institute for Global Health. She is an investigator for the multi-institutional COVID-19 Prevention Network's (CoVPN) Moderna mRNA-1273 clinical trial for children 6 months to 12 years of age.
About the Event Series
This event is the second of a four-part series co-hosted by Leaps.org, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and the Sabin–Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group, with generous support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.