16 May 2002
Key breakthroughs into epilepsy will rely on the consistent support of charities, says a lead researcher specialising in the condition.
Internationally renowned Professor John Duncan says: ‘Those with epilepsy can take some comfort from the fact we are narrowing down the likely causes and consequences of this potentially-devastating disease of the brain.
‘But we still have much to learn, and unfortunately this is unlikely to happen without generous donations from charities.’
Professor Duncan, Head of the Department of Clinical and Experimental Epilepsy of the Institute of Neurology, University College London, has just been awarded almost £180,000 to lead an exciting three-year research study into furthering our understanding of the effects of epilepsy. It will look at blood flow and the mobility of water in the brain, and will hopefully lead to better targeted medical and surgical treament.
Leading medical research charity Action Research has announced the project to coincide with National Epilepsy Week (May 19-25). Action Research, which is dedicated to overcoming disease and disability by funding projects at the cutting edge of science, has been committed to epilepsy research for some time. Over the last five years it has awarded a massive £890,000 into projects directly related to epilepsy.
Every day, about 80 people suddenly discover that they have epilepsy when they are struck by their first seizure – which is almost 30,000 people each year.
Professor Duncan, who is also Medical Director of the National Society for Epilepsy says: ‘It is the most common serious disease of the brain, and carries the risk of death, physical injury and negative social, psychological and economic consequences for the sufferer and their family.’
Epilepsy can be controlled by medication for 80% of people who develop the problem. For the remaining 20%, however, these drugs are not effective and surgery may be considered. This can only take place if the area of the brain that triggers the seizures can be pinpointed accurately.
In this latest study, which has been generously sponsored by the Garfield Weston Foundation, the research team will be investigating new methods of scanning the brain to narrow down the source of epileptic activity.
This follows on from a previous three-year study in which Action Researchers developed current conventional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans to act as “windows on the brain” in between seizures.
Professor Duncan says the team will now be evaluating MRI techniques – mainly directly after seizures - to identify changes that occur in the brain.
Professor Duncan, who will be joined by physicist Dr Gareth Barker says: ‘In addition to telling us about the effects that seizures have on the brain, we hope that the research will help identify the source of epileptic activity and whether it damages the brain. Importantly, it may also lead to corrective surgical treatment.
‘We are extremely grateful that Action Research has given us this opportunity for further detective work.’
Action Research is currently leading two other epilepsy studies: One in London (led by colleagues in Professor Duncan’s Department) is aiming to further identify the origin of electrical activity, known as ‘spikes’, whereas a project in Cambridge is investigating which genes are being ‘expressed’ or stimulated by epileptic seizures.
Andrew Proctor, the Head of Communications at Action Research adds: ‘As the Charity celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and looks to the challenges ahead, it would be marvellous to offer fresh hope to so many epilepsy sufferers with the arrival of new breakthroughs.’
Action Research is dedicated to helping overcome disease and disability for children, families and the elderly across the UK. Its Touching Lives Campaign aims to raise £2.5m in 2002 for vital medical research and more details can be found at www.action.org.uk
Fact-File: *Epilepsy is the most common serious brain disorder.
*One person in 20 will have a single seizure (or ‘fit’) at some point in their lives.
*Seizures are often spontaneous but can be caused by triggers such as lack of sleep, flickering lights or high fever.
*During an epileptic seizure brain activity is affected by unregulated and chaotic electrical disturbances. Sufferers may become confused, some may fall to the floor and convulse, some may experience only a minor ‘absence’.
*Epilepsy places a heavy burden on the NHS, particularly care in the community. It’s estimated to drain £2billion from the UK economy each year.
*Conventional MRI is a complex computerised method of scanning which uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves. It helps produce images of the patient’s body parts, and to-date has been used to detect tumours, brain and spine diseases, fluid in the skull, and certain cancers.
*In this study MRI scans are being developed to locate part of the brain which is causing the epilepsy problem. These scans work by analysing the exact amount of water in any part of the brain, and uses this information to create a picture which highlights any lesions, scars, tumours or malformations which may be responsible for the condition.