Spasmodic dysphonia (SD) is a neurological disorder of the voice where a patient's ability to speak is compromised due to involuntary contractions of the intrinsic laryngeal muscles. Since the 1980s, SD has been treated with botulinum toxin A (BTX) injections into the throat. This therapy is limited by the delayed-onset of benefits, wearing-off effects, and repeated injections required every 3 months. In a patient with essential tremor (ET) and coincident SD, the authors set out to quantify the effects of thalamic deep brain stimulation (DBS) on vocal function while investigating the underlying motor thalamic circuitry.
A 79-year-old right-handed woman with ET and coincident adductor SD was referred to our neurosurgical team. While primarily treating her limb tremor, the authors studied the effects of unilateral, thalamic DBS on vocal function using the Unified Spasmodic Dysphonia Rating Scale (USDRS) and voice-related quality of life (VRQOL). Since dystonia is increasingly being considered a multinodal network disorder, an anterior trajectory into the left thalamus was deliberately chosen such that the proximal contacts of the electrode were in the ventral oralis anterior (Voa) nucleus (pallidal outflow) and the distal contacts were in the ventral intermediate (Vim) nucleus (cerebellar outflow). In addition to assessing on/off unilateral thalamic Vim stimulation on voice, the authors experimentally assessed low-voltage unilateral Vim, Voa, or multitarget stimulation in a prospective, randomized, doubled-blinded manner. The evaluators were experienced at rating SD and were familiar with the vocal tremor of ET. A Wilcoxon signed-rank test was used to study the pre- and posttreatment effect of DBS on voice.
Unilateral left thalamic Vim stimulation (DBS on) significantly improved SD vocal dysfunction compared with no stimulation (DBS off), as measured by the USDRS (p < 0.01) and VRQOL (p < 0.01). In the experimental interrogation, both low-voltage Vim (p < 0.01) and multitarget Vim + Voa (p < 0.01) stimulation were significantly superior to low-voltage Voa stimulation.
For the first time, the effects of high-frequency stimulation of different neural circuits in SD have been quantified. Unexpectedly, focused Voa (pallidal outflow) stimulation was inferior to Vim (cerebellar outflow) stimulation despite the classification of SD as a dystonia. While only a single case, scattered reports exist on the positive effects of thalamic DBS on dysphonia. A Phase 1 pilot trial (DEBUSSY; clinical trial no. NCT02558634, clinicaltrials.gov) is underway at the authors' center to evaluate the safety and preliminary efficacy of DBS in SD. The authors hope that this current report stimulates neurosurgeons to investigate this new indication for DBS.