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Monday, 19 February, 2001, 13:06 GMT
Epilepsy advance brings cure hope
Brain scan
Abnormal areas show up on the scan
A scanning technique could provide new hope of a cure for thousands of people who have epilepsy.

The technology can pinpoint the exact spot in the brain where epileptic seizures start.

Drugs can control seizures among some patients but others need surgery to alleviate the sometimes debilitating effects of the condition.

However, it is only possible to carry out surgery if doctors are able to pinpoint the part of the brain where seizures start.

Electrode surgery
Electrodes must be inserted into the brain
Until now, this has proved impossible for the one in four patients who have failed to respond to drugs.

Now scientists, funded by the charity Action Research, are developing new ways of using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to identify these previously hidden spots.

MRI works by using a strong magnetic field which interacts with water in the body.

Computer

A computer then processes the information and turns it into a three dimensional picture of the body.

Scientists from the National Society for Epilepsy and University College London are working on the new MRI techniques which could help cure thousands of people with the condition.

Research leader Professor John Duncan said: "Epilepsy is the most common serious disease of the brain, and costs the UK 2,000 million per year.


Probably the risks of surgery is the equivalent of living with epilepsy for two to three years

Mr William Harkness, surgeon
"Epileptic seizures can result in injury and have a profound effect on a person's well being, activities, social life and job prospects.

"For those whose seizures are not controlled with medication, surgical treatment can offer the chance of a cure and transformation of life for the better."

The scan works by detecting the movement of water between the cells of the brain.

Epilepsy is associated with cell death in the affected areas of the brain. In these areas the cells are not packed together as tightly as usual, and so there is more water between cells.

Pioneering patient

Anuja Rawal, 37, is one of the first patients to benefit from the new scan. She has had epilepsy for 11 years.

Doctors decided to try surgery after using the scan to pinpoint the affected areas of her brain.

She required two operations to carry out the necessary work.

First, surgeons inserted electrodes into her brain to measure electrical activity and check if the area picked up by the new scan really was the cause of her epilepsy.

Anuja Rawal
Anuja Rawal has benefited from the new technology
The first phase of surgery proved that the scan had indeed identified the problem area of the brain.

The second operation involved removing an area of the brain the size of a small orange.

It will be two years before doctors can say whether Anuja has been cured, but three months after her second operation, she is doing well.

Surgeon Mr William Harkness admitted that the procedure was not without risks.

He said: "A patient with severe epilepsy is at risk of either severe injury or death each year.

"Probably the risks of surgery is the equivalent of living with epilepsy for two to three years."

There is also a risk that removing brain tissue from the front lobe of the brain could alter the patient's personality.

However, Mr Harkness said this is not likely.

"If this area of the brain is causing the seizures it's probably not behaving normally anyway.

"In all probability other areas of the brain have taken over the functions of this particular area."

Epilepsy affects 350,000 people in the UK.

Anuja's story is told in two parts on the BBC One programme Tomorrow's World on February 21 and 28 at 1900 GMT.

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See also:

20 Dec 00 | Health
Epilepsy drugs pregnancy warning
15 Sep 00 | Health
Doctors 'failing epileptic women'
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