Organic Matter: Research offers hope to epileptics

It was encouraging to read a recent story filed in London by an Associated Press medical writer on new research that could benefit epileptics.

My wife, Colleen, has a seizure disorder.

Tests have ruled out true epilepsy and neurologists she has seen refer to her as having "non-epileptic episodes." Stress is the most common factor that will trigger them.

There is little difference in the symptoms as described in the AP story.

Roughly six of every 1,000 people in the world have epilepsy, including 2.3 million Americans.

The condition involves periodic electrical storms in the brain that cause brain circuits to misfire.

What follows can range from short vacant stares (silent seizures) to jerking movements of the arms and/or legs (violent seizures), convulsions and loss of consciousness.

If a person has an attack while standing, the resulting fall could lead to serious head trauma, brain injury and death.

On some occasions, Colleen will tell me she has a metallic taste in her mouth.

That almost always is a prelude to seizure activity within 24 hours.

She also experiences auras in which someone calls her name or the phone or doorbell rings.

These are other warning signs that seizures are forthcoming.

Colleen used to take three medications for seizures but the neurologist she sees in Bullhead City managed to take her off two of them and she is down to one - Klonopin.

If she can avoid stressful situations, some of which include news of the death or serious illness of a friend or relative, it works pretty well.

However, roughly 30 percent of epileptics are not helped by any medication.

Researchers at a hospital in Paris were able to measure changes in the electrical activity of the brains of 23 epileptics using a standard scalp electroencephalograph (EEG).

The machine is routinely used in the diagnosis and management of epilepsy.

Through sophisticated mathematics, the researchers were able to translate the tracings into recordings that show spikes in the pattern of electrical activity.

Recording these subtle changes from outside the skull was not thought possible in the past.

The data gathered allows researchers to sense changes in brain activity an average of seven minutes before the onset of seizures.

Dr.

Timothy Pedley of Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York suggested it may be possible, given the new research, to miniaturize and implant an EEG in epileptics.

But that would be a step far in the future, he said.

"The skull, spinal fluid and tissue on the scalp dampens the signals by about 50 or 100 times.

These are very tiny changes," Pedley said.

"Until this study, no one knew it was possible to do it on the scalp with a standard EEG."

Prediction of seizure onset would provide time for the application of preventative measures to keep the risk of seizure to a minimum and, ultimately, improve the quality of life by reducing the chances of injury and the sense of helplessness felt by epilepsy sufferers, the study said.

The research is an "exciting development" that could help scientists better understand what goes wrong in the brain in epilepsy and develop better treatments, said Dr.

David Fish of the Institute of Neurology in London.

One drawback is that the study only included patients with temporal lobe epilepsy, a common type.

It is unknown whether similar patterns occur in other types of epilepsy.

Researchers hope the study puts medical science on a path in which epileptics can one day wear tiny brain sensors to detect impending seizures and release medicine from implanted pumps to avert the attack.

Terry Organ is the Miner's education, health and weather reporter.