Epileptic seizures could be a thing of the past with new brain implant

30 Aug 2018

Image: Teeradej/Shutterstock

Researchers have successfully demonstrated that a small device implanted in the brain can detect, stop and even prevent epileptic seizures.

The World Health Organization estimates that as many as 50m people worldwide live with epilepsy, a chronic disorder of the brain characterised by recurrent seizures.

These seizure episodes are the result of excessive electrical discharges in a group of brain cells and can vary from the briefest lapses of attention or muscle jerks, to severe and prolonged convulsions.

Now though, a team of researchers from the University of Cambridge and the École Nationale Supérieure des Mines and Inserm in France has demonstrated how a brain implant could make epileptic seizures a thing of the past.

Publishing its findings in Science Advances, the team said the device is capable of detecting seizures and preventing future ones.

The team was driven to develop the technology because of the limitations of existing anti-epileptic drugs. While significantly limiting seizure occurrences, these drugs often have serious side effects and don’t prevent seizures in three out of every 10 patients.

How it works

The study involved placing the device into the brains of mice. When the first signals of seizure were detected, the implant delivered a native brain chemical, which stopped the seizure from progressing.

The research team said its device contains a neurotransmitter, which acts as a ‘brake’ at the seizure’s source.

The drug contained within it is then delivered to the affected region of the brain, with a neural probe incorporating a tiny ion pump and electrodes to monitor neural activity.

When a seizure is detected, the ion pump in the implant activates, creating an electric field that moves the drug across an ion exchange membrane and out of the device, in a process known as electrophoresis.

“In addition to be being able to control exactly when and how much drug is delivered, what is special about this approach is that the drugs come out of the device without any solvent,” said lead author Dr Christopher Proctor.

“This prevents damage to the surrounding tissue and allows the drugs to interact with the cells immediately outside the device.”

Because it only takes small doses of the drug to work, the device would not have to be refilled for an extensive period of time.

During testing, the delivered drug was taken up by natural processes in the brain within minutes, meaning it would reduce the side effects of treatment.

However, despite the considerable breakthrough, the team said that the device would not be available for several years to humans as it looks to continue further testing in mice.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic