PIONEERING research by scientists in the North East could offer new treatments to people suffering from epilepsy.
For the first time, scientists at Newcastle University have been able to record spontaneous epileptic activity in brain tissue that has been removed from patients undergoing neurosurgery.
Led by Dr Mark Cunningham, the research has revealed a particular type of brain wave pattern associated with epilepsy that is caused by electrical connections between nerve cells in the brain – rather than chemical ones.
The findings mark a major step forward in understanding of a condition that currently affects up to 45 million people worldwide.
Dr Cunningham said: “Until now we have only been able to mimic epilepsy using experimental animal models, but this can never give you a true picture of what is actually going on inside the human brain in epilepsy.
“Our findings help us to understand what is going wrong and are an important step towards finding new epilepsy treatments in the future.”
The first line of treatment for patients with epilepsy is anti-epileptic drugs to control seizures.
However, in almost 30% of epilepsy patients the drugs do not work and some resort to surgery to remove the brain tissue responsible for the condition.
As part of the research Epilepsy Surgery Group at Newcastle General Hospital and IBM Watson Research Centre in New York, the team – with permission from the patients – has taken this epileptic tissue into the lab and “fooled” it into thinking it is still part of the living brain.
They have then been able to record electrical signals from individual neurons and also networks of neurons.
Comparing this with normal brain tissue activity they managed to record a particular type of brain wave which occurs in the intact epileptic human brain and which scientists believe is a precursor to an epileptic seizure.
Using a combination of experimental techniques, the team have shown that rather than being controlled by chemical signals which most conventional anti-epileptic drugs target, this oscillation relies on direct electrical connections.
Dr Cunningham, who conducted the research with his colleague Prof Miles Whittington, added: “This may explain why the traditional drugs that target chemical connections don’t work for patients with this kind of epilepsy. These findings have massively increased our understanding of epilepsy and offer real hope in terms of finding new ways of tackling the disease.
“The next step is to understand what it is that triggers the transition between the underlying epileptic state of the brain cells and the fast oscillations that are responsible for causing a seizure.”
Simon Wigglesworth, deputy chief executive at Epilepsy Action, said: “This is exciting news for people whose epilepsy cannot be controlled by medication and an important development in our understanding of the condition. Currently, there is no treatment to cure epilepsy other than surgery, which at the moment is only effective for small numbers. We hope that this research will move us closer to effective treatment for more people with epilepsy in future.”