A European woman who needed an implanted brain device got an unwelcome side effect during a storm: Nearby lightning switched the device off.
Experts say the phenomenon is likely rare, and the deep brain stimulator device worked fine again once it was turned back on by doctors.
Still, it’s a hazard worth looking out for, medical experts said.
While this is the first such event recorded, “a thunderstorm is a common natural phenomenon; therefore, the present case draws attention to the potential danger of lightning strikes [for implanted device users],” said study co-author Dr. Dusan Flisar, of the University of Ljubljana, in Slovenia.
Such battery-powered devices are called neurostimulators, deep-brain stimulators or implantable pulse generators (IPGs), Flisar’s team explained. The devices are used to treat a number of movement disorders (such as Parkinson’s), as well as some mental health conditions, for patients who do not get sufficient relief from medications.
IPGs are typically implanted just under the muscle or skin in the upper chest. They deliver electrical impulses to electrodes in those areas of the brain that are targeted for treatment.
However, prior research has shown that IPGs can be affected by electromagnetic fields generated by electrical devices at work, home and in the hospital, the study authors pointed out.
This new case shows that lightning might also pose a threat to IPGs.
The researchers said a 66-year-old woman received one of the devices to help control her neck dystonia, a painful and involuntary contraction of muscles. She had used the device — to good effect — for five years.
However, during a thunderstorm, lightning hit the electrical network of her apartment building with such force that her television and air conditioner were both burned and destroyed.
“The patient realized that something was wrong only one hour after the storm subsided, when the dystonic tremor in her neck reappeared,” the researchers explained.
Checking her IPG, the woman noticed the “Power On Reset” warning had appeared, so she took the device to a clinic and found that the lightning had turned it off. Luckily, the device was otherwise undamaged.
“After switching the stimulator back on, the patient’s dystonic tremor resolved almost immediately and her neck dystonia improved,” the researchers wrote in the report, which was published online May 1 in the Journal of Neurosurgery.
While the incident is the only one yet reported, Flisar and colleagues indicated that “patients [with IPGs] should be regularly warned to avoid environmental sources that 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.”
Two brain specialists based in the United States agreed that this phenomenon is rare, but worth noting.
“As technology progresses, we need to stay ahead of risks posed,” said Dr. Gayatri Devi, a neurologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. She noted that “other implantable devices, such as older cardiac pacemakers and brain shunts, may malfunction after exposure to strong magnetic fields such as those generated by an MRI machine, although newer pacemakers and devices are MRI compatible.”
Dr. Michael Schulder helps direct neurosurgery at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y. He said that the device used by the Slovenian woman has been “an FDA-approved treatment for patients with movement disorders such as tremor and Parkinson’s disease for over 20 years.”
He added that “the problem known as dystonia is less common, and while it is not ‘officially approved,’ there is extensive evidence proving the value of [the devices] for treating patients with that condition.”
But Schulder believes there’s no need for the more than 100,000 Americans who use the devices to panic the next time they hear thunder.
“This report supports the idea that ‘getting struck by lightning’ is as rare an event as we normally think it is,” Schulder said.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more on deep brain stimulation.