Discovery raises hope for severe forms of human epilepsy

Published on May 5, 2013 at 1:44 AM · No Comments

Epilepsy that does not respond to drugs can be halted in adult mice by transplanting a specific type of cell into the brain, UC San Francisco researchers have discovered, raising hope that a similar treatment might work in severe forms of human epilepsy.

UCSF scientists controlled seizures in epileptic mice with a one-time transplantation of medial ganglionic eminence (MGE) cells, which inhibit signaling in overactive nerve circuits, into the hippocampus, a brain region associated with seizures, as well as with learning and memory. Other researchers had previously used different cell types in rodent cell transplantation experiments and failed to stop seizures. 

Cell therapy has become an active focus of epilepsy research, in part because current medications, even when effective, only control symptoms and not underlying causes of the disease, according to Scott C. Baraban, PhD, who holds the William K. Bowes Jr. Endowed Chair in Neuroscience Research at UCSF and led the new study. In many types of epilepsy, he said, current drugs have no therapeutic value at all.

"Our results are an encouraging step toward using inhibitory neurons for cell transplantation in adults with severe forms of epilepsy," Baraban said. "This procedure offers the possibility of controlling seizures and rescuing cognitive deficits in these patients."

The findings, which are the first ever to report stopping seizures in mouse models of adult human epilepsy, will be published online May 5 in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

During epileptic seizures, extreme muscle contractions and, often, a loss of consciousness can cause seizure sufferers to lose control, fall and sometimes be seriously injured. The unseen malfunction behind these effects is the abnormal firing of many excitatory nerve cells in the brain at the same time.

In the UCSF study, the transplanted inhibitory cells quenched this synchronous, nerve-signaling firestorm, eliminating seizures in half of the treated mice and dramatically reducing the number of spontaneous seizures in the rest. Robert Hunt, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Baraban lab, guided many of the key experiments.

In another encouraging step, UCSF researchers reported May 2 that they found a way to reliably generate human MGE-like cells in the laboratory, and that, when transplanted into healthy mice,the cells similarly spun off functional inhibitory nerve cells. That research can be found online in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

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