Warning message

This article was published in July 2013. The information may be out of date. Please check our epilepsy information or our site A-Z.

Accidental science: new protein treatment

8 Jul 2013

A recent study into how synapses – the junctions that connect brain cells – are built has had an unexpected result. Scientists have accidentally developed a new epilepsy treatment

Suzanne Paradis and her research colleagues at Brandeis University (Massachusetts, US) were conducting an experiment into synapses. Synapses are the links between brain cells that carry signals from one brain cell to another. In a person with epilepsy, the electrical activity spreads across brain cells through these synapses.

There are three different types of synapse. Specifically, Suzanne’s team were looking at GABAergic synapses. GABAergic synapses are named after gamma-Aminobutyric acid – a chemical called a neurotransmitter that carries signals in the nervous system. GABAergic synapses naturally limit the spread of signals (including epileptic activity).

Suzanne’s team figured out that a protein called Sema4D was an essential building block for this type of synapse. They found that when the protein was removed, brain cells could no longer build GABAergic synapses – the kind that limits epileptic activity. Then one member of the team – Marissa Kuzirian – suggested that they try adding Sema4D to brain cells to see what happened.

Two neurons communicatingThe team did not expect the results. Within 30 minutes, dozens of new GABAergic synapses had been created – much, much more quickly than the team could have guessed. They immediately realised how important this might be in treating a condition like epilepsy. Adding the protein to the brain cells of a person with epilepsy may lead to new GABAergic synapses – stopping the spread of seizure activity.

To test their idea, Suzanne’s team used a slice of mammal brain that was treated to create seizure-like conditions in the laboratory. Sema4D was then added to the brain tissue. Within half an hour, the electrical activity in the tissue had reduced significantly – falling from the levels of a seizure and back almost to normal.

In a press release, Suzanne said “We were not intending to study epilepsy, yet we discovered something we didn’t know before. That’s why funding basic research is so important. You never know where the next big, groundbreaking discovery is going to come from.”

Suzanne is careful to point out that this research is in its early stages. Much more must be done to turn their discovery into a treatment for epilepsy in living humans. Their initial findings were published in an onlline edition of The Journal of Neuroscience on 22 May.


There are no comments yet. Be the first to comment...

Question about your epilepsy?

Your question will be sent to our helpline advisors.

Have a comment about this page?

All comments are reviewed by a moderator before publishing. Comments will be edited or deleted if they are offensive, libellous, slanderous, abusive, commercial or irrelevant.

We ask for your email when you make a comment through this website. This means that we can let you know directly that we have replied to you. By making a comment through the website, you allow us to use the comment in our publicity without using your name. If we would like to use your name, we will email you to get your permission.

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
5 + 1 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.