Science

Pickin’, Twitchin’, and Grinnin’

Skepchick readers don’t need more excuses to love science, but when you mix music and kick ass medical science, you have the recipe for awesome. And when that music comes in the form of a bluegrass banjo virtuoso, it’s like awesome with cheese on it.

Many of you may have seen this story recently (video included). Jen posted a link in the Quickies a couple days ago, but I thought it was worth a full post.

Eddie Adcock, whose fast picking and unconventional style made him world famous as a bluegrass banjo innovator, suffered an essential tremor, which is an involuntary trembling in the head or hands that afflicts 10 million Americans. Doctors thought brain surgery could correct the hand tremors that were threatening Adcock’s music career, not to mention his well-being.

So, after applying only local anesthesia and tuning Adcock’s strings for him, they went to work. That’s right, Adcock was awake during the surgery! And not only was he awake, but he was playing the banjo!

Adcock picked his banjo while doctors fiddled with his gray matter.

The idea was to reduce the brain signals causing the tremors and to dial in to a point where his banjo playing abilities matched those he had before the essential tremor set in. They had to be careful not to stop short and leave traces of the trembling, or go too far to where he had no motor skills at all.

Using a procedure called “deep brain stimulation”, they place an electrode into Adcock’s thalamus and connected it to a type of pacemaker. When the pacemaker is activated, a bolt of energy jams the tremor, allowing Adcock to regain control of his hands.

So, if you think of the banjo playing spectrum as follows:

Sam Ogden –> First year student –> Avid practitioner –> Steve Martin –> Roy Clark –> The inbred kid from Deliverance –> Earl Scruggs –> Eddie Adcock

They had to listen to him play while they operated and take cues from him about how he felt to verify how much to jam the tremors. If his skill level dipped toward the Sam Ogden end of the spectrum, they knew they had not jammed enough of the signal, and they made adjustments. They listened to him play and adjusted the settings until they zeroed in on the Eddie Adcock end of the spectrum, and then set the energy-emitting device at that level.

Now Adcock can control the tremors with a switch on his new “pacemaker”. He can literally turn his talent back on.

How cool is that?

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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11 Comments

  1. It was only a matter of time before an article finally combined bluegrass music and cutting-edge medical science.

    I’m taking Sam’s word for it that the kid from Deliverance was better than Roy Clark, but I still have a few neurons that are skeptical about that point.

    Very cool story. My dad has epilepsy and while this is unlikely to be anything he needs in the near future, it’s nice to see the work being done.

  2. @Ken Hahn:

    I’m taking Sam’s word for it that the kid from Deliverance was better than Roy Clark, but I still have a few neurons that are skeptical about that point.

    Hehe . . . . Your skepticism may just be warranted in this case. But I think we can agree that all of them are way better than me.

  3. I was going to say its like sci-fi! but then I thought… no, wait… its like an episode of House!

    The best part about stories like this is the thought… just think what they will be able to do in another 10, 25, 50 years! WOW!

  4. That’s right, Adcock was awake during the surgery!

    IANABS, but isn’t it pretty common during a lot of brain surgeries to keep the patient awake, so that they can keep tabs on their mental state?

  5. Sadly, I was disappointed to find via IMDB that Billy Redden couldn’t really play the banjo at the time that movie was filmed. The actual player(s) were a stunt double who fingered the chords on film and an overdub played by Eric Weissberg.

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