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Chemical waves research may aid epilepsy

14 June, 2002

Scientists have manipulated chemical waves in experiments that may one day lead to controlling abnormal electrical waves in the heart or brain to ward off a heart attack or epileptic seizure.

The researchers at West Virginia University, led by chemistry Professor Ken Showalter, report in the journal Science that they have controlled the movements of photosensitive chemical waves with light from a computer-controlled video projector.

"We’ve learned we can control the motion of these waves through methods of control theory," said Dr. Showalter. The experiments in involved monitoring and controlling chemical waves on a photosensitive Belousov-Zhabotinsky medium, a widely used chemical reaction for studying wave behaviour. The researchers captured images of the waves with a video camera, then altered the direction the waves travel with light from the video projector in real time. They were able to produce various wave patterns using this method, from a simple circular pattern to complex shapes resembling roads on a map.

Although the team’s work is basic research, Showalter is optimistic the findings could one day be of use in the medical field.

"There are what we call propagating waves throughout all living systems," he said. "These biological wave systems are difficult to study, so we study chemical model systems instead. What we learn from simple chemical systems we can then apply to understanding more complicated biological systems."

Waves travel through brain tissue, Showlater said. Electrical wave behaviour on the surface of the brain is complex and without apparent order. In people with epilepsy, a region of the brain sends out waves in a rhythmic pattern that leads to a seizure.

Showalter said the researchers’ work holds particular promise for people with heart disease or epilepsy. For example, medical researchers might develop miniature computers that, when implanted in the chest or brain, could deliver a small shock at the sign of any irregular wave activity, preventing the onset of a heart attack or seizure.