Deep Brain Stimulation Stopped Self-Injurious Behaviors in Young Girl with Autism

July 04, 2022

Severe Self-Harm Ended Immediately After Surgery

A nine-year-old Canadian girl with autism named Ellie Tomljanovic has become patient number one in a first-of-its-kind study to discover if deep brain stimulation (DBS) can stop children with self-injurious behaviors. According to Ellie’s parents, her violent outbursts were incredibly severe. They involved hitting her head with her hand, trying to swallow her fist, and shoving fingers up her nose to trigger bleeding, vomiting, and spitting. Ellie’s parents took her to The Hospital for Sick Children when sedatives and anti-psychotics stopped working for her. There they met with a group of scientists preparing a ground-breaking DBS study. Ellie turned out to be an excellent candidate for their new research. In December 2020, a team of doctors drilled two small holes at the top of Ellie’s skull and implanted two electrodes that went into the depth of her brain. These two electrodes were then connected to wires under the skin of her neck to a battery implanted on the upper right side of her chest. The embedded battery powers an electrical signal that flows through wires into Ellie’s brain. A doctor can control the strength of the electrical signal flowing through the wires into Ellie’s brain. If needed, the signal can be turned up, and if there’s an unexpected side effect, it can be dialed down. After a short recovery from the surgery, the doctors turned on Ellie’s stimulator. The results were immediate. Her self-injurious behaviors disappeared. Immediately, Ellie became happy and engaged, smiling and laughing from the start of the treatment. When the doctors turned off the device, the self-harm returned. In the 18 months since the surgery, Ellie has not experienced any serious side effects. Changing the battery is one drawback of this type of DBS. It is required every six months and involves a short surgery. All things considered, Ellie’s parents are thrilled with DBS and say that the changes seen in their daughter in the 18 months since the procedure have been “life-changing.” 

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