Gene expression plays a larger role than thought in the development of temporal lobe epilepsy, a common form of epilepsy, finds an international team of scientists.
The study was published in the journal Annals of Neurology by scientists from France's biomedical institution Inserm, the University of Marseille in France and the University of California-Irvine. Previously, experts thought neurons, or nerve cells, in the brain began acting abnormally after they were damaged by head trauma or previous illnesses that caused high fevers.
Healthy neurons normally transmit messages to one another by moving ions — or charged particles — back and forth in channels between cells. These coordinated efforts allow humans and animals to do a variety of things, ranging from eating to reading science news articles on the Internet.
But for people living with epilepsy, neurons in the brain can behave abnormally, sometimes firing uncontrollably and causing seizures. Though epilepsy can be caused by many things, the majority of cases cannot be traced back to a particular cause.
Looking beyond neurons, the research team found that a "master switch" gene called NRSF controls the expression of some 1,800 genes suppressed in patients with epilepsy. Researchers think brain trauma still activates the gene, but there's evidence that keeping its proteins from influencing other genes can prevent brain tissue from becoming epileptic.
So what does this mean for the 50 million people worldwide living with epilepsy?
For the time being, the research can help scientists create treatments for individuals with higher risks of developing epilepsy after experiencing brain trauma. With more research, additional leads may help researchers develop better treatments for people already living with the condition. It's also likely that more studies expanding the findings in humans will be needed (since most are still conducted on mice).
Anti-epileptic drugs can reduce seizures, but there's still no sure way to guard against the effects of epilepsy. Even more, some individuals lack access to proper care and may be stigmatized by their communities.
One World Health Organization source suggested that discrimination affected patients in the United States as well: "…until the 1970s, it was legal to deny people with seizures access to restaurants, theaters, recreational centers and other public buildings," according to the report.
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