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Searching for a Cure

David Mogul, Professor of Biomedical Engineering

Mogul’s background in electrical engineering led him to realize studying the brain using network theory could hold the key to understanding epilepsy. During a seizure, dramatic changes in the brain’s structural and functional networks occur, and Mogul thinks that understanding epilepsy as a network disorder could hold the key to successfully treating it.

More than 1 percent of the world’s population has some form of epilepsy, and after stroke it is the neurological disease that results in the second-highest number of fatalities, says Mogul. The currently available treatments include medications and surgical removal, or ablation, of the affected part of the brain, but both can carry debilitating side effects. About a third of patients aren’t helped by either.

Mogul, an Illinois Tech faculty member since 2002, believes that deep-brain stimulation (DBS) could hold promise. DBS uses electrodes implanted in the brain to deliver electrical impulses to brain nuclei to block or inhibit neuronal activity, although the exact mechanism by which it works is still unclear. It has been successfully used to treat Parkinson’s disease and has been tried experimentally for the treatment of epilepsy in both animals and humans, but results have been unpredictable, erratic, and largely disappointing, he says.

“If you want to optimize stimulation, you have to understand the dynamics of the brain as it goes into and out of seizures,” says Mogul, who received a five-year, $1.28 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in February 2016 to continue pursuing this research. He studies these dynamics in rats that undergo chronic repetitive seizures (in other words, epilepsy) by recording and analyzing brain function to tease apart what the brain experiences as a seizure evolves.

“We saw certain characteristic electrical behaviors in brains at the onset of a seizure and as it naturally terminates,” he explains. “We initially focused our efforts on trying to see if once a seizure initiates, we could terminate it with electrical stimulation.”

Mogul and his colleagues discovered that individual rats had unique neurological dynamics both during seizures and as the seizures naturally subsided. By using DBS that was matched to the observed natural electrical activity of an individual rat’s brain, the researchers could artificially terminate seizures significantly more rapidly and effectively than could be accomplished with currently employed DBS protocols that typically do not reflect actual seizure dynamics. He believes his team has found a mechanism that can, in part, help to guide optimization of stimulation, and that such treatment may be translatable to personalized medicine for epilepsy patients that is superior to what is now available.

A paper in the January 2016 issue of Epilepsia describing this research, coauthored by Mogul and Tiwalade Sobayo, a doctoral candidate (and now fellow) in biomedical engineering at Illinois Tech, was recently selected to receive the 2017 Epilepsia Prize for the Best Basic Science Paper of 2016. Mogul’s team is also partnering with NIH to analyze patient data from its International Epilepsy Electrophysiology Database at the University of Pennsylvania. They hope to identify unique neurological dynamics of epileptic seizures in patients to help develop optimization of DBS for treating humans with epilepsy.—Jim Daley