As if the prospect of neurosurgery isn't daunting enough, the idea of having to remain awake for the procedure is enough to turn many Parkinson's disease sufferers off potentially life-changing deep brain stimulation surgery altogether. But now researchers at the Bionics Institute in Melbourne have discovered a unique brain signal that might allow electrodes to be inserted at the correct location in the brain without the patient being conscious.

Deep brain stimulation, whereby electrode implants stimulate specific parts of the brain, can significantly reduce Parkinson's symptoms, including tremors, muscle stiffness and slowed movement. However, to ensure the electrodes are positioned correctly, patients have needed to remain awake through the implantation surgery as the higher level of brain activity helps guide the surgeons.

But after recording and analyzing the brainwaves of patients during surgery – 14 that had Parkinson's disease and five who had a condition known as essential tremor – researchers have discovered that the target area for placement of the electrodes produces a unique brain signal that can be used to guide surgeons instead. This could allow the patient to sleep through the whole procedure.

"I have many patients who could benefit greatly from deep brain stimulation but are dissuaded by the thought of being awake during the operation," explains Wesley Thevathasan, a clinician involved in the study. "The prospect of being able to have the procedure whilst asleep and having a specific homing signal to improve the accuracy of electrode placement is vitally important."

While the discovery has the potential to improve the lives of many people living with Parkinson's, the researchers think it also opens up the possibility of a device that can detect changes in the brain signal and respond accordingly, altering its treatments in real time.

The team's research appears in the journal Annals of Neurology.