September 17, 2019

Treating Epilepsy with Physics

In this article, Dr. Louis Nemzer describes how novel approaches to predicting and treating seizures are being developed thanks to advances in our understanding of the physics of the brain

There are millions of people who live with unpredictable seizures that are – for reasons we don’t completely understand – not well controlled by medication or even surgery.

So, what can physics say about this challenge?

The brain is an incredibly complex network consisting of tens of billions of neurons forming hundreds of trillions of connections, which makes the task of prediction seem daunting. However, each neuron is still a physical object that obeys the laws of physics.

As part of our research at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, US, we have carried out computer simulations of the behaviour of small networks of neurons using the Hodgkin–Huxley equations. This work has let us monitor the effects of slight changes to individual parameters, such as the threshold for each neuron to fire, or the “stickiness” of ion gates, which makes them stay open longer than they should. All of these may have a significant impact on the excitability of each neuron.

To classify the risk of seizures, our group in Florida is adapting machine-learning algorithms that are already used in medicine to diagnose radiology images. We are currently training the machine-learning models – and the simulations we created before are helping by generating simulated data that the algorithms can learn from. Next, as long as we have enough labelled ECoG data from patients, we hope to be able to build a highly accurate warning program even if we do not know which features in the signal the algorithm is using. While this “black-box” approach may seem disconcerting at first, the primary test will be the usefulness, if not the explainability, of the resulting system.

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