January 30, 2015

CURE Conversations: Esther Krook-Magnuson, PhD

Get to know our researchers! CURE Conversations features interviews with our scientists and discusses the focus of their work as well as recent breakthroughs in the field of epilepsy research. These investigators are the people behind the scenes who work diligently in the labs to unravel the mysteries of epilepsy, studying the science that will one day lead to cures for the epilepsies.

Assistant Professor, Department of Neuroscience, University of Minnesota

Can you share some details about what you do?
I am working to understand the specific roles of the different types of brain cells, how they work together to form functional groups or networks, and how those networks in turn interact. Using a mouse model of temporal lobe epilepsy, I seek to understand how these interactions can give rise to seizures, and how the system can be manipulated to stop or inhibit seizures.

What motivated you to become interested in this area of research?
To be honest, I avoided epilepsy research for a long time, because I was frustrated by what seemed to an outsider to be a laundry list of changes seen with epilepsy, without any clear understanding of causation and thus having limited potential to make a positive impact. However, in part due to new tools, the field is changing. My initial project with epilepsy was one I believed in; something I thought someone needed to do. And now I feel equipped to use these tools to answer some important questions.

What is your current research focus?
I am currently using a tool called optogenetics—which allows unprecedented specificity of intervention—to understand seizure circuitry and identify potential new targets for intervention and to look at the outcomes of such selective intervention strategies. I use optogenetics in what is called an “on-demand” or “responsive” fashion to modulate specific aspects of the brain circuitry selectively at the time of seizures.

Can you share some of the latest findings?
Recently, I found that modulating a brain region not typically associated with temporal lobe epilepsy can have profound and unique inhibitory effects on temporal lobe seizures. I have also found that, by identifying key components in the seizure network, it is possible to reduce the degree of intervention (to directly target fewer cells) without greatly sacrificing the efficacy of the intervention.

What is the ultimate goal for the research and how will it impact patients with epilepsy?
The goal is to understand epilepsy circuitry and identify ways to stop or prevent seizures while interfering as little as possible. The ultimate goal is to have a strategy that stops seizures without producing negative side effects—intervention where it is needed, when it is needed, and no more.

What accomplishment—personal or professional—are you most proud of?
While I am extremely proud of our research, I am most proud of my wonderful family. I was raised in an amazing, large family, and now I have a terrific and supportive husband and two children I couldn’t be prouder of. My children aren’t really an “accomplishment,” but I am very proud of them. I am also extremely lucky that they are healthy, and that is something I wish for all parents.