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What Research Is Being Done on Epilepsy?
While research has led to many advances in understanding and treating epilepsy, there are many unanswered questions about how and why seizures develop, how they can best be treated or prevented, and how they influence other brain activity and brain development. Researchers, many of whom are supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), are studying all of these questions. They also are working to identify and test new drugs and other treatments for epilepsy and to learn how those treatments affect brain activity and development.
The NINDS's Anticonvulsant Screening Program (ASP) studies potential new therapies with the goal of enhancing treatment for patients with epilepsy. Since it began in 1975, more than 390 public-private partnerships have been created. These partnerships have resulted in state-of-the-art evaluations of more than 25,000 compounds for their potential as antiepileptic drugs. This government-sponsored effort has contributed to the development of five drugs that are now approved for use in the United States. It has also aided in the discovery and profiling of six new compounds currently in various stages of clinical development. Besides testing for safer, more efficacious therapies, the Program is developing and validating new models that may one day find therapies that intervene in the disease process itself as well as models of resistant or refractory epilepsy.
Scientists continue to study how excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters interact with brain cells to control nerve firing. They can apply different chemicals to cultures of neurons in laboratory dishes to study how those chemicals influence neuronal activity. They also are studying how glia and other non-neuronal cells in the brain contribute to seizures. This research may lead to new drugs and other new ways of treating seizures.
Researchers also are working to identify genes that may influence epilepsy in some way. Identifying these genes can reveal the underlying chemical processes that influence epilepsy and point to new ways of preventing or treating this disorder. Researchers also can study rats and mice that have missing or abnormal copies of certain genes to determine how these genes affect normal brain development and resistance to damage from disease and other environmental factors. In the future, researchers may be able to use panels of gene fragments, called "gene chips," to determine each person's genetic makeup. This information may allow doctors to prevent epilepsy or to predict which treatments will be most beneficial.
Doctors are now experimenting with several new types of therapies for epilepsy. In one preliminary clinical trial, doctors have begun transplanting fetal pig neurons that produce GABA into the brains of patients to learn whether the cell transplants can help control seizures. Preliminary research suggests that stem cell transplants also may prove beneficial for treating epilepsy. Research showing that the brain undergoes subtle changes prior to a seizure has led to a prototype device that may be able to predict seizures up to 3 minutes before they begin. If this device works, it could greatly reduce the risk of injury from seizures by allowing people to move to a safe area before their seizures start. This type of device also may be hooked up to a treatment pump or other device that will automatically deliver an antiepileptic drug or an electric impulse to forestall the seizures.
Researchers are continually improving MRI and other brain scans. Pre-surgical brain imaging can guide doctors to abnormal brain tissue and away from essential parts of the brain. Researchers also are using brain scans such as magnetoencephalograms (MEG) and magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to identify and study subtle problems in the brain that cannot otherwise be detected. Their findings may lead to a better understanding of epilepsy and how it can be treated.
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