Medicine increasingly involves modifying your body with technology, becoming a little bit cyborg to lead a normal human life. Case in point: new research suggests that brain implants may be the best treatment for epileptic seizures. Called "electrode array monitoring technologies," these devices wire the brain with a hair-thin electrode and could make dangerous seizures into a thing of the past.


Why do seizures occur?

Seizures are the physical aftereffect to a momentary electrical imbalance within the brain. These physical reactions to these electrical imbalances can range from a momentary increase in alertness to an overall shaking of the body extremities .

These electrical responses can be triggered due to symptomatic events like a decrease in blood glucose or a high fever. Chronic seizures can occur due to brain injuries or illicit drug use. Individuals with epilepsy are plagued with frequent seizures due to a permanent change in brain morphology.


Monitoring seizures

The technology to monitor seizures using electrode arrays is currently available, but the thickness of current monitoring instrumentation, approximately that of a credit card, prevents the array from making contact with the curvature and folds of the brain. The current monitoring methods are used prior to surgery to excise portions of the brain with consistent seizure activity, particularly in patients with epilepsy.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have developed a flexible electrode array thinner than a piece of human hair. Such an array would be flexible enough to map the contours of the human brain, increasing the quality and coverage of electrical brain activity obtained, along with opening doors for leaving the array in as an implant for electrical impulse monitoring in patients with recurring seizure activity.


Cats, not rats (for once)

Felines were chosen for this study, as their brain has more folds that mice and therefore mimics that of a human better. In the study, self-sustaining "spiral" waves were observed in the cats when researchers induced seizures in the cats. This was the first time these spiral waves were observed, and reminded researchers of waves that run through heart tissue during ventricular fibrillation. Researchers are interested to see if these spiral waves occur in humans.


Implanting electrodes in the brains of seizure sufferers
If humans also experience spiral waves prior to a seizure, the designers of the ultrathin electrode arrays believe the technology could take a step beyond analyzing seizure activity. Dr. Brian Litt, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia and leader of this research into flexible electrode arrays, said,

Someday, these flexible arrays could be used to pinpoint where seizures start in the brain and perhaps to shut them down.

An electrode array implant could be used to emit an alternate waveform when spirals are observed in order to prevent a seizure. This is not far removed from the action of cardiac pacemakers and their activity when an arrhythmia is detected.


An electronic brain implant would remove the necessity for physical re-sectioning or removal or a portion of the brain. Also, due to the small size of the electrode array, it is possible that it could be packaged or rolled and inserted into the skull in a less invasive manner.

Why not treat seizures with pharmaceuticals?

Over a dozen anti-seizure medications are available via prescription, including Lyrica and Keprra, however, a pharmaceutical approach does not work for everyone. Some individuals with a history of epilepsy can undergo a surgical procedure if their seizures are constrained to the a single focus point of the brain.


An anterior temporal lobectomy is one of the most common surgical procedures for those with seizures consistently emanating from this part of the brain. Surgery removes a portion of the brain from the patient and leave them with scars that take years to heal, and these surgeries leave only 60% of patients seizure-free. A future involving auto-stimulated electrode array implants could provide for a much higher success rate coupled with less extreme medical tactics.

Images courtesy of the Epilepsy Foundation, Nature, the National Institutes of Health, and Shutterstock. Sources linked within the article.