A new three-year study seeks to identify how and why brain damage can occur as a result of seizures.
Funded by the medical charity Action Research , the project based at both Cambridge and London, could open up new possibilities of better targeted treatment, thereby improving the quality of life for thousands of people.
Action Research has announced the award of more than £119,000 to coincide with National Epilepsy Week (beginning May 20).
Dr Ruth Empson, of the School of Biological Sciences, Royal Holloway University of London, Egham, adds:
"It touches the lives of so many people, and as a result it places a heavy demand on the NHS, particularly care in the community. It is estimated that epilepsy places a burden of nearly £2billion on the UK economy each year."
Despite increased awareness and improved understanding, current medication isn’t fully beneficial for many sufferers. Dr Empson explains:
"Many of the drugs that most epilepsy patients receive were developed in the early part of the twentieth century, and although often effective, some people suffer considerable side effects."
This is because the drugs are not specific enough and not only interfere with the normal functions within the brain, but also affect parts of the body other than the brain. Dr Empsom says:
"There is therefore a great need to develop drugs that are more selective towards actions in the brain itself and that are targeted to what happens during a seizure."
Leading the project, Dr Armando Genazzani, of the Department of Pharmacology, University of Cambridge says that during an seizure, the normally well-ordered electrical activity in the brain is suddenly disturbed by chaotic and unregulated electrical discharges, including an influx of calcium ions into the brain cells.
Calcium is vital for life in that it controls important functions, such as communication, within all cells - including in the brain, but an excessive flood of calcium ions - as happens in a seizure – can lead to what’s known as ‘gene expression’, where certain genes are stimulated and ‘switched on’. This can spark a suicidal mechanism where nerve cells (neurons) associated with calcium are killed and lost, leading to a risk of brain damage.
By using modern genetic techniques, the research team aims to identify which genes are being ‘expressed’ or stimulated by epileptic seizures. Their detective work could lead to the development of specially-targeted drugs that not only stop the seizures worsening, but also prevent the cells from dying.
The study, worth more than £280,000, is developing new ways to examine the brain with MRI scans, opening up new possibilities for surgical techniques.