IET: New system could detect and halt epileptic seizures

There could be light at the end of the tunnel for the 50 million people worldwide who suffer from epilepsy

An innovative new research project to develop a system that will electronically detect epileptic seizures and halt them has got the go-ahead following funding from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) as part of its A F Harvey Engineering Research Prize.

The neuroscientist behind the project, Prof Edward S Boyden, proposes to create an implantable prosthetic that will detect electrical activity associated with seizures, and then use light to rapidly drive or silence key neurons, halting the seizure.

It is hoped that Prof Boyden’s research will identify a treatment which will make specific neurons in the brain sensitive to being driven or silenced by light, taking advantage of “optogenetic” modular technologies that have already been developed. A wirelessly-powered implant and controlled light source could be triggered externally, enabling the precise activation of silencing of specific neurons in the brain.

Prof Boyden, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been named as the inaugural recipient of the IET’s A F Harvey Engineering Research Prize. It is worth L300,000 and is awarded in recognition of his outstanding contributions to research in medical engineering.

Prof Boyden said: "Over the last several years, we've developed a suite of molecular tools that make neurons activatable or silenceable by pulses of light. These tools are in widespread use in science, because they let you turn brain cells on or off, thus revealing what the cells do in the brain. We're eager to keep expanding this toolbox, and also to help figure out clinical uses for the tools as novel therapeutics."

Nigel Fine, IET Chief Executive, said: “Prof Boyden’s outstanding research into technologies that enable the electrical activity of brain cells to be controlled by light, has opened up the possibility of new kinds of treatments for otherwise untreatable brain disorders.

“Prof Boyden is a worthy recipient of the first ever IET A F Harvey Engineering Research Prize. I am confident that the funding will accelerate his work and the results will be of great use to medical science and those who have epilepsy. I am delighted that this award has gone to such a worthy cause.”

Prof Boyden has been awarded the prize for his pioneering research contributions to, and development of, the field of optogenetics, which has the potential to enable new approaches to therapy. The research he proposes to undertake, making use of the prize fund, is focused on exploiting his advances in optogenetics to detect and suppress epileptic seizures.


Notes to editors:

Additional quotes from Prof Boyden:

About the Prize: "I am very honoured to be the first recipient of the A F Harvey Prize from the IET. I am excited about the award because it not only celebrates our prior work on inventing methods for controlling brain cells with light, but will help us support further research in our laboratory. This is a truly unique award and I'm very excited that our work is having impact on the world of science."

More detail on the research: "These ‘optogenetic’ tools are proteins known as opsins, found in organisms throughout the tree of life, that serve photosynthetic or photosensory roles, transforming light into electrical signals.

“When the genes encoding for these opsins are delivered to specific neurons via conventional gene delivery methods, then the electrical activity of those targeted neurons becomes controllable by light. Many groups around the world use these tools to turn on and off neurons in animal models of brain disorders, revealing the neurons that, when controlled, can most powerfully remedy the disorder.

“These neural targets, as they are found, can serve as future targets for drug discovery. We have also developed wireless, miniature, implantable 3-D light delivery devices that enable control of complex circuits in the brain. Our optical neural control technologies are beginning to enable new kinds of prototype neural control prosthetic– cell-targetable analogues to the implanted electrical neuromodulation devices that help hundreds of thousands of people sense and move."

About the IET AF Harvey Engineering Research Prize:
The award, worth L300,000, is named after Dr A F Harvey who bequeathed a generous sum of money to the IET for a trust fund to be set up in his name after his death. The terms of the trust specify that the money is to be used for the furtherance of scientific research into the fields of medical, microwave, laser or radar engineering. This award is made for the first time in 2011.

The IET will celebrate this inaugural prize with a high-profile event in London on 19 June 2012. At this event, Prof Boyden will give a talk on his research to an audience of leading engineers, scientists and business leaders.

About the IET:
The IET, a not-for-profit organisation, is a world-leading multi-disciplinary society and a trusted source of essential engineering intelligence. Part of its remit is promoting, recognising and rewarding excellence through its awards programmes, such as the IET A F Harvey Engineering Research Prize.

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