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King's awarded £2.5m to build computer model of epileptic brain

Researchers at King’s College London have been awarded £2.52 million by the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) to build a computational model of the brain networks involved in epilepsy. By combining data from brain scans & electrical recordings of brain waves, the researchers hope to understand the complex mechanisms which result in seizures. 

Epilepsy affects approximately 600,000 people in the UK. It causes catastrophic seizures, resulting in at least 1,000 deaths per year in the UK and is the most common cause of repeated admission to hospital. About 1 in 3 of all people with epilepsy do not respond to any medication, and continue to have uncontrolled seizures.

It is not yet known how epileptic seizures start but there are clues from animal models and human genetic studies which show that epilepsy can be caused by a wide range of disturbances in brain cell function. Clinical tests show that different people experience different patterns of epileptic seizure – it has been suggested there may be at least 20 different types of epilepsy, each with a slightly different cause.

Despite this, there are some well-recognised aspects of epilepsy, suggesting different types of seizure and epilepsy may share common mechanisms. Firstly, although there appear to be many causes of epilepsy, there are only small number of types of epileptic seizure; and an individual with epilepsy may suffer from several different types of seizure. Secondly, epilepsy may sometimes be inherited within a family but all family members affected often do not have the same type of epilepsy. Finally, drugs used to treat epilepsy have broadly similar therapeutic effects across all types of seizure and epilepsy, with very few exceptions.

Professor Mark Richardson, Head of the Department of Clinical Neuroscience at King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry and lead researcher on the programme says: “We want to bridge the gap between what we know about the clinical phenomenon of epilepsy with what we understand about the brain mechanism. The onset of seizures happens incredibly quickly so we need to find out what happens to make the brain switch from one state to the other and how these networks change over time either as a result of treatment or because of spontaneous remission. By collecting and analysing data from brain scans and recordings of brain waves, we aim to build a comprehensive computational model of epilepsy. This highly complex model should help us understand when, how and why seizures develop in the brain.”

Using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Professor Richardson’s and colleagues have shown abnormalities of specific brain regions and their connections. Using electrical recordings of brain waves (EEG), they have shown that brain networks differ between people with epilepsy and people who do not have epilepsy; and that unaffected relatives of people with epilepsy may have similar brain networks to their affected relatives. Using computer models of how EEG activity is produced, they have shown that these inherited networks have an abnormal ability to suddenly switch to seizure activity.

The research programme, due to begin in June 2013, will examine four main questions:

•  Are brain networks which have an abnormal ability to generate seizures found across a range of common types of epilepsy?

•  Are these network abnormalities inherited?

•  Does successful treatment act by altering the properties of these brain networks?

•  In people whose epilepsy spontaneously goes away, is this accompanied by a change in the properties of these brain networks?

In order to answer these questions, researchers will collect MRI brain scans and EEGs from more than 150 people with epilepsy, in addition to their close family relatives, and a control group of people who have no personal or family connection with epilepsy.

From these, they will develop new methods to identify the relevant brain networks and examine how these networks differ between people with epilepsy, their relatives and controls. They will also examine how these networks change over time (and how quickly they change) in response to starting treatment, and as a result of spontaneous remission of epilepsy. A special focus of this programme is the development of new computer-based methods to identify the mechanisms by which seizures arise in these highly complex networks of the brain.

Professor Richardson will work with colleagues across King’s on the programme, including Professor Steve Williams, Head of the Department of Neuroimaging at the IoP at King’s, Professor Gareth Barker and Professor Deb Pal as well as Dr Michael Koutroumanidis, St Thomas’s Hospital; Professor John Terry, University of Exeter; Michael Breakspear, Queensland Institute of Medical Research (Australia).

For further information, please contact Seil Collins, Press Officer, King’s College London, Institute of Psychiatry, tel: (+44) 0207 848 5377 or email: