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Stopping seizures with light

Steven Rothman, M.D.

Pediatric neurologist Steven Rothman, M.D., is searching for a better way to stop difficult-to-control focal seizures.

Focal (or partial) epilepsy, which may account for up to 40 percent of seizures in children, is caused by “abnormally excitable” brain tissue in one specific area of the brain, says Rothman.

It can be difficult to control with medication, Rothman says. In that case, the best treatment can be surgical removal of the part of brain that’s causing the seizures—but that can cause permanent neurologic deficits.

“We’re trying to develop techniques to temporarily calm the excessively excitable portion of brain without requiring us to remove it,” says Rothman, who directs the Division of Pediatric Clinical Neuroscience in the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Department of Pediatrics.

With support from the nonprofit Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy’s (CURE) 2009 Madison Friends of CURE Award, Rothman and collaborator Daniel Rode, Ph.D., at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, will continue their studies on whether light can stop seizures without affecting other brain functions.

Their idea involves putting tiny light sources — smaller than a pencil eraser — on the surface of the brain. Then a “caged compound,” which releases GABA — the natural inhibitory transmitter in the brain that shuts down abnormal activity of nerve cells — would be administered into the fluid space surrounding the brain’s surface. At the start of a seizure, the light would turn on and trigger the instant release of GABA, calming the nerve cells and stopping the seizure.

This technique already has worked in cultures of brain cells, Rothman says, and a new article published in this month’s issue of the journal Epilepsia shows it works in slices of brain. The CURE grant funding supports studies to try to extend this technique to intact brains using a rat model of focal epilepsy.

“If we can perfect these optical techniques, children and adults with intractable focal epilepsy could ultimately benefit from the speed and the spatial selectivity of light,” says Rothman. “It would be virtually instantaneous.”

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