August 2, 2010
Epileptic Seizures Linked To Ancient Gene Family
New research points to a genetic route to understanding and treating epilepsy. Timothy Jegla, an assistant professor of biology at Penn State University, has identified an ancient gene family that plays a role in regulating the excitability of nerves within the brain.
"In healthy people, nerves do not fire excessively in response to small stimuli. This function allows us to focus on what really matters. Nerve cells maintain a threshold between rest and excitement, and a stimulus has to cross this threshold to cause the nerve cells to fire," Jegla explained. "However, when this threshold is set too low, neurons can become hyperactive and fire in synchrony. As excessive firing spreads across the brain, the result is an epileptic seizure."
In collaboration with Jeffrey Noebels at Baylor College of Medicine, the team used an electroencephalography (EEG) device to monitor the brains of mice. They found that mice missing the Kv12.2 gene did indeed have frequent seizures, albeit without convulsions. The team then stimulated mice with a chemical that induces convulsive seizures. They found that normal mice had a much higher convulsive-seizure threshold than mice with a defective Kv12.2 gene. The team also found the same results when they used a chemical inhibitor to block the Kv12.2 potassium channel in normal mice.
"In mice without a functioning Kv12.2 gene, nerve cells had abnormally low firing thresholds. Even small stimuli caused seizures," Jegla explained. "We think that this potassium channel plays a role in the brain's ability to remain 'quiet' and to respond selectively to strong stimuli."
Jegla hopes to open up new avenues of epilepsy research by studying whether activation of the Kv12.2 potassium channel in normal animals can block seizures. "Ion-channel defects have been identified in inherited seizure disorders, but many types of epilepsy don't have a genetic cause to begin with," Jegla explained. "They are often caused by environmental factors, such as a brain injury or a high fever. However, the most effective drugs used to treat epilepsy target ion channels. If we can learn more about how ion channels influence seizure thresholds, we should be able to develop better drugs with fewer side effects."
In addition to Jegla and Noebels, other scientists who contributed to this research include Xiaofei Zhang, Federica Bertaso, Karsten Baumgärtel, and Sinead M. Clancy of the Scripps Research Institute; Jong W. Yoo of the Baylor College of Medicine; and Van Lee, Cynthia Cienfuegos, Carly Wilmot, Jacqueline Avis, Truc Hunyh, Catherine Daguia, and Christian Schmedt of the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation. This research was funded by the National Institutes of Health through its National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Image Caption: This is an artist's visualization of the human brain. New research points to a genetic route to understanding and treating epilepsy. Timothy Jegla, an assistant professor of biology at Penn State University, has identified an ancient gene family that plays a role in regulating the excitability of nerves within the brain. The research is scheduled to be published in the early online version of the journal Nature Neuroscience on Aug. 1, 2010. Credit: Arthur Toga, University of California at Los Angeles via the National Institute of General Medical Sciences
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