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26 April 2016

Study identifies potential for preventing memory problems in people with epilepsy

A new study has offered the hope of future devices preventing cognitive deficits in people with epilepsy.

A study published in Nature Medicine has shown that the brain cells of people with epilepsy send signals that make "empty memories", which may explain why up to 40 per cent of people with epilepsy face problems learning.

The study was led by researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center who tested animal models and humans to discover how epilepsy disrupts normal brain signals.

Epilepsy hijacks a normal brain process

The study's lead author and NYU Langone paediatric neurologist Jennifer Gelinas, MD, PhD said: "Our study sheds the first light on the mechanisms by which epilepsy hijacks a normal brain process, disrupting the signals needed to form memories.  Many of my patients feel that cognitive problems have at least as much impact on their lives as seizures, but we have nothing to offer them beyond seizure control treatments. We hope to change that."

Hippocampus sends "empty memories" to cortex

The study focused on the hippocampus and cortex, two brain regions known to exchange precise signals as each day's experiences are converted into permanent memories during sleep.  The study authors found that instead of sending normal messages as part of normal memory storage, the hippocampus sent meaningless commands or "empty memories" that the cortex must process like real memories.

Abnormal signalling correlates with memory impairment

Researchers found that animal models who experienced these abnormal commands had significant trouble navigating to places they had previously found water.  Scientists also found that the degree of abnormal signalling in study animals correlated closely with the level of memory impairment. Humans with epilepsy were found to experience similar abnormal hippocampal discharges between seizures that mimicked memory-forming communication between brain regions.

Researchers hope they will be able to interrupt the signals using a device that could activate during the tens of milliseconds delay observed between the hippocampus signals and the cortex response.  A design effort has been launched to create an appropriate device that could offer hope to people with epilepsy and memory problems.


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