Dogs can predict epileptic seizures in humans – QUB study

31 Aug 2021

Image: © Елена Швецова/Stock.adobe.com

Lead researcher Dr Neil Powell said the studied dogs reacted to seizure-associated odour by making eye contact with their owner, touching them, crying or barking.

New research from Queen’s University Belfast has found that dogs are able to use their sense of smell to detect an impending epileptic attack in their owners and warn them in advance.

Using 19 pet dogs that were not trained for detecting epilepsy, researchers from the university’s School of Biological Sciences found that the dogs could sense an imminent attack because of a specific odour associated with the disease exhaled by the owner.

“We hypothesised that, given the extraordinary sense of smell of dogs, a volatile organic compound exhaled by the dog’s epileptic owner may provide an early warning trigger mechanism to which dogs react before the seizure,” said Dr Neil Powell, lead researcher of the study. “The results have shown pet dogs to be a reliable source to detect an on-set seizure.”

According to the World Health Organization, around 50m people worldwide have epilepsy, making it one of the most common neurological diseases. Around 30pc of those with epilepsy are unable to control seizures through medication, and sudden attacks can lead to injury, loss of consciousness or even death. While there are currently no ways to predict or supress attacks in advance, research is underway.

The Queen’s research was prompted by anecdotal evidence that dogs can predict seizures and exhibit attention-seeking behaviours to alert their owners. However, the researchers said that no prior scientific study has been able to confirm this claim.

Using a specially designed apparatus called the Remote Odour Delivery Mechanism, the researchers were able to separately deliver seizure-associated odours taken from sweat samples to the dogs. The dogs’ responses were then recorded to notice any changes.

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Powell, who has been training dogs for more than 45 years, said that the findings clearly showed that all dogs reacted to the seizure-associated odour by various methods such as making eye contact with their owner, touching them, crying or barking.

“Our research was based on pet dogs with no prior training. If we can train dogs, this has the potential to make a big difference to owners who experience unpredictable seizures and should go a long way in improving not only their safety, but also their quality of life,” said Powell.

The study, published in the MDPI Animals journal, was funded by and conducted in partnership with Epilepsy Ireland and Disability Assistance Dogs.

Peter Murphy, CEO of Epilepsy Ireland, said that a reliable method of seizure prediction and detection has been the “holy grail” for many people living with epilepsy as well as the parents of children with the condition.

“While recent efforts have focused on technological solutions, it is exciting and very welcome news that anecdotal reports of dogs’ ability to predict seizures have now been backed up by scientific evidence.

“We have been immensely proud to support Dr Powell’s work and we hope that the findings will lead to new approaches alongside ‘man’s best friend’ that promote safety and offer reassurance for people living with epilepsy.”

Vish Gain is a journalist and copywriter with Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com