May 1, 2023

SMU Biosciences Professor Receives NIH Grant for Research on Epilepsy

Article published by News Wise

Featuring the work of former CURE Epilepsy grantee Dr. Edward Glasscock

An estimated 50 million people worldwide have epilepsy, making them 16 times more likely to die suddenly compared to the general population. SMU biology researcher Edward Glasscock has received a 5-year, $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for a study that he hopes will lead to the identification of biomarkers to help identify people at risk for sudden unexpected death in epilepsy, known as SUDEP.

What causes sudden death in people with epilepsy is largely unknown, making it difficult for clinicians and researchers to predict who is most at risk. However, one popular theory is that seizures initiate faulty electrochemical signals in brain regions that control the heart and breathing, causing miscommunication between the brain, heart, and lungs leading to respiratory failure or heart arrhythmias. If the patterns of this faulty inter-organ crosstalk could be identified in people with epilepsy, then it could serve as an indicator for who is most at risk for sudden death, as well as lead to the development of new treatments to prevent SUDEP.

Glasscock, associate professor of biological sciences at SMU (Southern Methodist University) is working in collaboration with Leonidas Iasemidis, of the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, to investigate how these faulty electrochemical signals affect the brain-heart-lung pathways. Glasscock and Iasemidis are using a multidisciplinary bioengineering systems approach that would not only identify biomarkers but also provide insight on the biological basis of SUDEP, which can lead to better targeted therapies.

Epilepsy, with new cases often diagnosed in young children, occurs because of abnormal electrical activity in the brain that causes seizures. Because there are many different causes and types of epilepsy, it is described as a spectrum disorder, which makes it difficult to study. However, scientists have made strides in discerning the genetic factors and mechanisms that cause some people to develop epilepsy.

In the body, electrochemical signals are related to chemical ion gradients, like potassium or sodium. Cells allow these ions to pass into and out of the cell membrane through channels. These channels are highly regulated because too few or too many of the ions can cause problems with the brain’s signaling pathways. It is thought that one cause of epilepsy is related to genetic mutations that cause these ion channel regulators to malfunction. This results in abnormal interactions between the brain, heart, and lungs, which in turn may cause sudden death.