Thalamic deep brain stimulation decelerates automatic lexical activation

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Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) of the thalamic ventral intermediate nucleus (VIM) is a therapeutic option for patients with essential tremor. Despite a generally low risk of side effects, declines in verbal fluency (VF) have previously been reported.


We aimed to specify effects of VIM-DBS on major cognitive operations needed for VF task performance, represented by clusters and switches. Clusters are word production spurts, thought to arise from automatic activation of associated information pertaining to a given lexical field. Switches are slow word-to-word transitions, presumed to indicate controlled operations for stepping from one lexical field to another.

Patients & methods

Thirteen essential tremor patients with VIM-DBS performed verbal fluency tasks in their VIM-DBS ON and OFF conditions. Clusters and switches were formally defined by mathematical criteria. All results were compared to those of fifteen healthy control subjects, and significant OFF-ON-change scores were correlated to stimulation parameters.


Patients produced fewer words than healthy controls. DBS ON compared to DBS OFF aggravated this deficit by prolonging the intervals between words within clusters, whereas switches remained unaffected. This stimulation effect correlated with more anterior electrode positions.


VIM-DBS seems to influence word output dynamics during verbal fluency tasks on the level of word clustering. This suggests a perturbation of automatic lexical co-activation by thalamic stimulation, particularly if delivered relatively anteriorly. The findings are discussed in the context of the hypothesized role of the thalamus in lexical processing.

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