What’s a fellow?
A research fellowship allows young scientists or physicians an opportunity to explore a specific research topic alongside an experienced faculty member. Underwriting new fellowships at UW-Madison encourages young bright scientists to focus their work on epilepsy, which is a very underfunded area of study. It also increases the university’s ability to attract more world-class medical research, and builds UW’s reputation as a leader in epilepsy.
2013 Fellow Brandon Wright
Brandon is a native of Louisiana, a UW grad and a PhD candidate working in Physiology in the Neuroscience Department lab of Dr. Meyer. In July of 2013, he will become the second Lily’s Fund Fellow dedicating himself to crack the code on epilepsy.
Seizures result from uncontrolled firing of neurons. Currently, electrodes and MRIs give us an idea where these electrical events take place but not an exact location. Brandon is using a technique called “voltage-imaging” to show where electrical pulses occur and where they will spread through the brain. Identifying the circuits or connections where runaway electrical activity occurs in the brain is the first step in finding the right treatment to stop the spread seizures.
For Brandon, this is more than just a purely scientific pursuit. Brandon’s brother lives with epilepsy. We’ll keep you updated on Brandon’s work.
September 20, 2013 Update on Brandon’s Work
Our second Lily’s Fund fellow, Brandon Wright, has been studying the circuitry within the hippocampal dentate gyrus, a structure toward the back of the brain that becomes intensely active during a common form of epilepsy called temporal lobe epilepsy. The goal of Brandon’s work is to show that these natural brain circuits are involved in processes that contribute to learning and memory, as well as epilepsy.
Neural circuitry is plastic, meaning the connections can be modified by experience (such as learning) or by pathological events (such as seizures).
The connections between nerve cells — the synapses — can be strengthened using intense electrical signals, a process called long-term potentiation. It is thought that long-term potentiation is a required step in the formation of memories. No long-term potentiation, no learning new things.
Brandon is inducing long-term potentiation in the circuitry of the dentate gyrus by applying a series of high-frequency electrical pulses, and then recording images of the electrical activity in that part of the brain. This tells him where long-term potentiation is taking place. The results so far suggest that long-term potentiation that is taking place in the dentate gyrus can play an important role in processing information.
High-frequency stimulation can also induce brain activity that is like epilepsy. So, long-term potentiation and epilepsy are similar in that they are both enhanced states for brain cells — the former being a controlled state, and the latter running abnormally out of control.
Experimental data may reveal the source of epilepsy-like activity, how signals are distributed across the dentate gyrus and how the dentate gyrus’ circuitry is changed after it is excited.
Brandon is also adding recordings of single-neuron activity in the dentate gyrus and will soon begin inducing epileptic states in brain cells to see how it alters the electrical properties of individual neurons.
What if your doctor could predict the likelihood of a seizure by looking for certain markers in your brain? Beth Hutchinson, our first Lily’s Fund Fellow named in 2011, made it her mission to study these markers.
We now know how quickly the brain learns and remembers the seizure pathways. By identifying and preventing the pathways from being created, doctors might be able to avoid a lifetime of epilepsy.
After 424 brain scans of rats using a new imaging technique to identify epilepsy, Beth and her UW team uncovered some important data that may predict the likelihood of developing epilepsy after a traumatic brain injury (TBI), a common precurser to epilepsy. If Beth’s findings prove true, instead of waiting and wondering if a seizure will occur, MRI readings could predict if seizures are likely. This could lead to a host of treatment options.
Under the guidance of Dr. Tom Sutula, Beth and her team completed a pilot study that demonstrated a remarkable difference between epilepsy-susceptible rats and epilepsy-resistant rats using brain scans enhanced with manganese.
What could all this mean? Current thinking for seizure protocol is to wait until a patient has more than one seizure before considering treatment. If, after a head injury or febrile seizure, doctors could identify the epilepsy marker through an MRI, they could intervene and possibly prevent the brain from ever having seizures.
These types of interventions are being worked on in labs across the country including here at UW. The goal is to make sure that the pathways to seizures are never made.
In August of 2012 Beth joined the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C. to continue investigating TBI and advanced imaging.
“I am very grateful for the past year as the Lily’s fellow,” she says. “Your support has not only helped me professionally, but also shaped my priorities and research goals for the future by informing and reminding me of the bigger picture for epilepsy research. Thank you!”
Good luck, Beth! We hope to hear more about your future research.