15 May 2001
Medical scientists are hoping to shed new light on the devastating seizures endured by epilepsy sufferers, says national charity Action Research.
The new three-year study - funded by the leading medical research charity - seeks to identify how and why brain damage can occur as a result of these convulsions.
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).
Epilepsy is the most common serious brain disorder, in which an individual is prone to recurrent seizures or ‘fits’. It affects some 350,000 people in the UK alone, which accounts for about one in every 200.
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 last century (20th), 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.’
Similarly, up to a third of all sufferers cannot control their condition with existing medication, meaning their condition continues putting them at risk of ‘a downward spiral of brain damage and increased seizure susceptibility’, she adds. Leading the project, Dr Armando Genazzani, of the Department of Pharmacology, University of Cambridge says that during an epileptic 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.
Action Research, which is fast approaching its 50th anniversary, is currently funding another exciting epilepsy project designed to pinpoint the sites at which seizures start.
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.
A free epilepsy leaflet is available from Action Research, Vincent House, North Parade, Horsham, West Sussex, RH12 2DP or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Action Research is dedicated to helping overcome disease and disability for children, families and the elderly across the UK. The charity’s Touching Lives Campaign aims to raise £2m for vital medical research and more details can be found at www.action.org.uk
For further information and interviews, please contact Nicole Duckworth in the Action Research press office on 01403 327403 Fax: 01403 210541, or email email@example.com
ISDN facilities are available.
Notes for Editors:
*National Epilepsy Week runs between May 20-26 and is owned by all the major epilepsy charities, including The British Epilepsy Association and The National Society for Epilepsy.