The majority of people who are touched by an epileptic seizure event can only endure the terrifying moments and put their faith in doctors to help their loved one. The University of Lethbridge’s Dr. Artur Luczak, however, was in a position to do much more when his infant son suffered a seizure, and what he’s learned about seizures since has flipped the script on understanding how the brain functions during these traumatic events.
When Luczak, a researcher in the U of L’s Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience (CCBN), witnessed his infant son experience an epileptic seizure, it understandably made an indelible impression both personally and professionally. Already deep in research that examines the interaction between neurons in the brain, Luczak turned to look at ictal (seizure) events by applying data techniques to gain a better understanding of how seizures develop in the brain.
“Having my son in my hands when he lost consciousness was the worst experience in my life,” says Luczak of the seizure event. “It really put me on this path to not only do the basic research but also this transitional research, which means in the future we can have a better understanding of the brain and hopefully design some better help for people with epilepsy.”
The prognosis for his son is positive as he fell into that group of infants who sometimes experience febrile seizure events when they develop high fevers. For the many people who are diagnosed as epileptics however, understanding what is happening in their brains is extremely complicated.
Luczak explains the prevailing theory behind ictal events is that the balance between excitatory neurons and inhibitory neurons in the brain is out of line, favouring excitation and a massive excitatory event. Using a unique technique to look at up to 100 neurons simultaneously, including the ability to differentiate between excitatory and inhibitory neurons, Luczak and his research team found that the inhibitory neurons, rather than being dormant throughout an ictal event, were significantly contributing to the seizure.
“This means that it’s not just excitation without check of inhibition but rather there is some complex network problem in which also inhibitory neurons are playing an important role,” says Luczak, whose findings from a collaborative study with the U of L’s Dr. Bruce McNaughton and researchers from Stanford University and Ghent University (Belgium) were published recently in the top neurology journal Brain. “It means that the picture is unfortunately much more complex than we thought.”
Luczak says the brain’s circuitry is the most complex system known to man, with billions of neurons interacting with each other for even the most basic of functions. Knowing now that inhibitory neurons are not passive throughout an ictal event opens up a whole new avenue of research.
“The first obvious thing is trying to repress these inhibitory cells during an ictal event. What will happen if we switch off those neurons, will it make it worse or will it reduce the seizure?” he asks. “This is the next question we will be pursuing to somehow better understand what is happening.”
Luczak and his team are performing basic research, putting together the building blocks upon which others construct treatments. What his work will turn into down the road is not yet known, and it may not even lead to epileptic treatment but rather shed light on any of a number of other neurological problems.
“We don’t know yet how to help people with epilepsy based on this research but it will steer us to a better understanding of the brain and points out the understanding we had so far is too simplistic,” he says. “We are trying to understand how the basic circuitry of the brain works and hopefully it will eventually lead to designing some better treatments for people with neurological disorders.”