Epilepsy cause may be found

June 2, 2000

Chemical "short-circuits" that link webs of brain cells together may be the culprits behind epileptic fits.

Computer simulations have provided a remarkable insight into the causes of the debilitating condition and could ultimately lead to new ways to reduce the damage caused by fits.

The research by Roger Traub, a neuroscientist at the University of Birmingham's school of medicine, has pointed the finger at short-circuits from the output end of brain cells that could lead to destructive electrical oscillations.

"If this is true, we have our hands on a whole new class of anti-epileptic drug," he said.

Professor Traub's work, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, has been carried out on an electronic brain slice, made up of thousands of artificial neurons within his IBM supercomputer "Rose".

In an epileptic fit, hosts of brain cells "fire" in synchronous bursts at frequencies up to 100Hz for several seconds.

The simulations are showing how this destructive electrical wave, which leads to massive brain cell death and a corresponding impact on health, might be generated.

At the heart of the process are protein links between brain cells called gap junctions.

Professor Traub has found that when these form between the axons or output lines of the neurons, they can lead to a situation where a long-lived, high frequency electrical oscillation can sweep through areas of the brain.

If this result is confirmed in physical studies, the challenge will be to find ways to stop these destructive ripples from occurring.

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