Can you predict a seizure before it even happens?

16 Aug 2019

Dr Marion Hogg. Image: RCSI

Dr Marion Hogg’s research into the functional consequences of neurodegenerative disease could help the medical field gain a clearer picture of how these illnesses progress.

Dr Marion Hogg is a researcher and honorary lecturer with the Department of Physiology and Medical Physics at RCSI. She is also a researcher at FutureNeuro, the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) research centre for chronic and rare neurological diseases, which is hosted by RCSI.

Hogg began her career in research by studying genetics at the University of Manchester, spending a year studying the genetics of neurodegenerative disease, with a particular interest in understanding the functional consequences that genetic mutations have on RNA (ribonucleic acid – a polymeric molecule essential in various elements of gene expression) and protein products.

Her subsequent master’s degree and PhD work at the University of Edinburgh continued to focus on RNA biology. She became specifically interested in researching RNA dysfunction in ALS by the end of her PhD, which has remained her area of research interest to this day.

“I am currently investigating tRNA fragments in neurological diseases, with a focus on ALS and epilepsy,” Hogg explained.

“We have shown that specific tRNA fragments are elevated in the blood in advance of seizures in people with epilepsy, and now we want to understand what these fragments are doing and develop a test capable of quantifying them so we may be able to predict the likelihood of a seizure occurring.”

‘I realise that I could spend my whole life researching one question and never completely understand the answer, but the potential to reveal a little more about a mechanism or process still excites me’

Her research at FutureNeuro has also gleaned that ALS patients who have high levels of certain tRNA fragments are associated with a slower progression of the disease and could possibly be useful as a prognostic biomarker.

“We would like to develop a test that could be used to stratify patients upon entry into clinical trials. I am also interested in exploring the function of this tRNA fragment – is it beneficial to motor neurons, and if so, what is it doing?”

Inspiration and interrogation

Hogg particularly enjoys this kind of interrogation, the kind that takes you to the fringes of human knowledge and pushes you into the world of unknowns and of questions that do not yet have answers. It is this kind of curiosity that drove her towards her field.

“During my GCSE and A-level biology classes, I was very inquisitive, always asking the teacher extra questions. One day the teacher admitted he didn’t know the answer to one of my questions, and he wasn’t sure if anyone knew the answer yet.

“This was a lightbulb moment for me when I realised that there were still so many things we don’t understand fully and that one day I could potentially be the first person in the world to discover the answer to a question.

“I now realise that I could spend my whole life researching one question and never completely understand the answer, but the potential to reveal a little more about a mechanism or process still excites me … it is nice when they turn out to be right, but that doesn’t happen very often.”

Despite how much the world of science has progressed, there are still essential questions that elude researchers, and so Hogg has a rather back-to-basics philosophy towards her work.

“There is still so much we don’t know about how the cell, tissue, or body as a whole works. By understanding how basic physiological processes work, hopefully we can understand what goes wrong that leads to disease, and then in the future we may be able to develop new treatments for neurological disorders.

“In order to make these breakthroughs in the future we need to understand the basic biological processes first.”

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Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic