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Brain plasticity promotes worsening of epileptic seizures, study finds

Illustration of a heat mapped brain lighting up in areas

Seizures become more frequent or more severe in some patients with epilepsy because the brain learns how to have seizures the same way it learns skills, Stanford researchers have found.

Yurchanka Siarhei/Shutterstock.com

By Erin Digitale

Epileptic seizures worsen via the same mechanism by which practice makes perfect, a new study from the Stanford University School of Medicine has found.

The research, conducted on rodents with epilepsy, provides a major new insight into the mechanics of how seizures worsen: Seizures drive better insulation of the nerve fibers involved in seizing, allowing the brain to have seizures more efficiently. The findings explain why seizures generally become more frequent and severe in epilepsy patients who don’t take medication or whose epilepsy doesn’t respond to medication.

The study was published May 2 in Nature Neuroscience.

The research findings represent the first known example of a type of brain plasticity, called activity-dependent myelination, contributing to a disease. The study also suggests new drug targets to interrupt the process and prevent seizures from escalating.

“I was surprised by what we saw. Initially, I thought that because this is a disease process, we would see deficient myelination somehow,” said the study’s lead author, Juliet Knowles, MD, PhD, assistant professor of neurology and neurological sciences and of pediatrics. “What we’re seeing is myelination in a pattern that favors seizure progression.”

The study’s senior authors are Michelle Monje, MD, PhD, professor of neurology and neurological sciences, and John Huguenard, PhD, professor of neurology and neurological sciences.