Non-invasive procedure helps Houston musician eliminate tremors

Kurt Johnson couldn’t hit notes on the violin, which he’s played since he was three-years-old, but an hour-long MRI just changed his life.

Webster, Texas – A shaky hand from essential tremors or Parkinson’s can negatively impact a person’s life. As the tremors progress, patients can lose the ability to perform basic tasks like personal hygiene or pouring a drink.

Now, a non-invasive procedure is eliminating those tremors by targeting a part of the brain with MRI-guided ultrasound. There are no needles, no incisions, no anesthesia, and almost no downtime.

On Monday, first chair violinist with the Houston Symphony, Kurt Johnson, went into the MRI with uncontrollable tremors caused by a neurological condition.

“Each decade that I live, it’s getting worse and worse,” Johnson said.

Unfortunately for Johnson, if the tremors continue, his career with the symphony may be affected.

“I’d have to find another outlet with music,” he said. “I’d definitely love to stay within music but, let’s, let’s not get there! Let’s hope that this works, really.”

To treat the tremors, Dr. Greg Bonnen targets and heats the part of the brain causing tremors.

Patients are awake and several times during the hour-long treatment, Dr. Bonnen stops and assesses the improvement.

The end result is dramatically different, typically patients can raise a steady hand, and for Johnson, it brought some much-needed peace.

“I’ll be able to do the daily activities that I haven’t the last couple years,” Johnson said within an hour of the procedure. “Right now, I need to teach my brain to forget about the tremor. To forget about it, and just let go and move on!”

Results from the procedure are expected to last without further procedures needed.

In a clinical trial, this procedure improved tremors.

Bonnen said it’s ideal for people with essential tremor and tremor dominant Parkinson’s. Other forms of Parkinson’s may see better results with a brain operation known as DBS.

“The challenge with Parkinson’s is that the disease is very bilateral in many patients, it may be more profound on one side but ultimately it tends to really affect both sides and with symptoms besides tremors so until you can treat both sides, it’s not for everybody with Parkinson’s,” Dr. Bonnen explained.

For Johnson’s essential tremor, the results were immediate.

“My whole arm feels different, feels balanced with the left arm,” he said. “What this is going to do for me? It’s going to bring back my musical life! It’s going to make me happy, my family will notice a happier guy, this is what we wanted.”

Johnson can now return to the Houston Symphony in time for the beginning of the season in September.

Results from the procedure are expected to last without further procedures needed. However, if the tremor returns, Dr. Bonnen said patients can then proceed to more invasive options.