A New Discovery Could Switch Off Epilepsy Seizures

This could revolutionize drug-free treatment.


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Today there are treatments that can help control epilepsy by preventing seizures. There have been new advancements in drug regimens and sometimes surgeries can target the areas of the brain that are affected.  But now researchers may have found a way to switch off seizures.

The research conducted by a team of neuroscientists at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington DC has found that while seizures can start in different areas of the brain, they can all be switched off by targeting a small set of neurons  according to a news release from the university.

Anyone can develop epilepsy and seizure symptoms can widely vary according to the Mayo Clinic. Seizures are caused when nerve cells located in the brain misfire. In some people it can be mild with only temporary brain confusion and severe in others. Doctors classify seizures as either focal or generalized (this is split into two categories depending on severity).

Around 3 million adults and 470,000 children in the US have epilepsy according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and that is about 1.2 percent of the population although some children outgrow epilepsy.

The study, published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), used animal models to zero in on specific neurons or their neuronal axons. According to the study's senior researcher Patrick A. Forcelli, PhD, an assistant professor in neuroscience and in pharmacology and physiology at Georgetown, deep brain stimulation therapy ( a currant treatment) will now be minutely configured to just the targeted cell body.

 “We have found a major choke point in epilepsy circuits in rat brains that we believe can be harnessed to disrupt the onset of seizures or to stop their propagation within the brain,” he says. “Circuit-based therapy for people will help offset the known side effects that come with drug therapy and other techniques,” Forcelli said in the news release.

He said that epilepsy researchers have known for almost 30 years that inhibiting a certain part of the brain – the substantia nigra pars recticulata (SNpr) – can help stop a seizure but they didn't understand why it did.

This new study built upon that pioneering work by Karen Gale, PhD, who mapped (like an atlas) the neuron of neuronal pathways involved in seizures and epilepsy according to Forcelli. Now, he wants a google map version that can zoom into an address and therefore improve brain stimulation therapy.

The researchers used four models in epileptic rats to reflect different seizure types found in people. They were able to halt seizures by placing light sensitive ion channels into neurons in the SNpr because the neurons could be switched on and off when exposed to light.

“We can’t target therapy if we don’t know how the circuits work. Discovering that silencing one area that a SNpr projects to, can turn off specific seizures suggests a much more targetable therapy. For example, deep brain stimulation could be aimed at that area,” Forcelli said. “These findings clarify a long-standing question in the field: the role these individual SNpr neural pathways play in the control of seizures.”

This new treatment offers the potential for a much safer form of brain stimulation therapy and a drug-free alternative to people who werenot candidates for surgery. This can help to make more people seizure free and greatly improve their quality of life.  

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