Epilepsy is a common neurological condition in which the normal electrochemical activity of the brain is disrupted resulting in seizures. The disease affects 1-2% of the worldwide population. According to Epilepsy Australia, it is estimated that over 180,000 Australians are living with epilepsy, approximately 2% of Australians will experience the condition at some point in their lives and up to 5% may experience a one-off epileptic seizure. Epilepsy is controlled, but not cured, by medication, and around 30% of sufferers do not respond well to medication.
Associate Professor David Grayden, Deputy Head (Academic) of the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering and the Discipline of Biomedical Engineering at the Melbourne School of Engineering, is leading a research project in conjunction with the Bionics Institute and St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne, that is investigating how electrical stimulation of the brain can be used to stop epileptic seizures.
Associate Professor Grayden and his team are using mathematical models to predict the patterns of electrical stimulations that may best control epilepsy.
“It may be possible to predict when a seizure is likely to occur, by analyzing mathematically what happens in the brain just before a seizure. We’re developing a mathematical model of particular regions of the brain to describe how epilepsy begins and ends,” Associate Professor Grayden said.
These mathematical algorithms will be used to design a medical bionics device, similar to a bionic ear, that can predict and control seizures. Associate Professor Grayden acknowledges that creating a seizure-prevention device that can be inserted into the brain presents many challenges.
“The device needs to be small, durable and safe within the body. The electrical stimulation must not cause damage to the brain, so there are many safety aspects that need to be considered before a final product comes out,” he said.
“We hope that we’ll have something ready for clinical trials in about three years from now.”
Associate Professor Grayden believes that there is no doubt that if the research is a success, it will be life changing for people with epilepsy.
“The need for new treatments for epilepsy is what motivates this research. Sometime the side-effects of drugs are very bad or the drugs are ineffective, so people struggle to have normal lives,” he said.
“In addition, there are stigmas attached to having epilepsy, and we would really like to make a difference in removing these,” he said.
A better understanding of how electrical stimulation interacts with neural tissue may not only provide relief for epilepsy sufferers, but could have therapeutic benefits across a range of neurological disorders.
A range of projects focusing on epilepsy are currently being undertaken in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the Melbourne School of Engineering.
Listen to Associate Professor Grayden and Professor Mark Cook discuss “Predicting and preventing epileptic seizures with neural implants” in episode 197 of the University of Melbourne’s podcast UpClose.