May 5, 2010

Shedding Light on Epilepsy

Research on building blocks in the brain could lead to new therapies

Neuroscience researchers have zeroed in on a mechanism that helps control the firing of electrical signals among neurons in the brain, shedding light on what causes epileptic seizures and perhaps other diseases involving poorly regulated brain activity.

The improved understanding of the exact processes that occur in epilepsy could ultimately lead to better treatments for it and possibly for other neurological diseases, the researchers say.

Neurons, a major type of brain cell, communicate electrical signals across gaps called synapses. Excessive signaling can lead to epileptic seizures. However, another class of brain cells, called glia, can regulate the neurons’ signals. Among the glia are star-shaped cells called astrocytes—the particular focus of the recent research, which was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

“This study shows that changes in astrocytes are key to brain dysfunction and opens the potential for novel therapeutic strategies in epilepsy,” says Philip G. Haydon, the Annetta and Gustav Grisard Professor and chair of the department of neuroscience at Tufts School of Medicine.

Haydon, who is also a member of the neuroscience program faculty at the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences, and his Tufts colleagues teamed up with a research group led by neuroscientist Douglas A. Coulter, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The two groups are further investigating how this research may produce better treatments for epilepsy.

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