Research shines ray of light on stopping epilepsy in the womb

Scientists at the University of Manchester believe they have shown for the first time that it may be possible to stop epilepsy in its tracks if it is treated early enough in the womb.

They believe they have found answer to the early prevention of epilepsy – in the tiny nervous systems of fruit flies.

The revolutionary new approach has been pioneered by two scientists at the University of Manchester with the use of light.

Professor Richard Baines and Dr Carlo Giachello used a genetically-altered fruit fly to show that when nervous system activity is suppressed by shining yellow light through its embryo, it will not go on to develop symptoms of the disease when it gets older.

Though the procedure has only been used on flies, the team believe the Medical Research Council funded research for the first time proves that the development of epilepsy can be stopped in its tracks if treated early enough.

The technique would not be applicable in individuals who already have epilepsy.

The revolutionary new approach was developed and tested over three years. The research team explained that for people whose epilepsy is caused by a gene mutation, there is a period in the disease’s development called the epileptogenic process. Scientists have already discovered that starting treatment with antiepileptic drugs during this period can delay the inevitable onset of seizures.

However, this new procedure seems to permanently prevent seizures in fruit flies.

Professor Baines said: “We’re excited by this discovery which we believe is proof of principle and a milestone in the way we understand epilepsy – though clearly more research is needed in mammals.

“But if these findings are taken to their logical conclusion, then we might envisage the possibility of being able to treat individuals at an early enough stage so they do not go on to develop the symptoms of epilepsy.

“After all, amazing though it might seem, the underlying biology of the central nervous system is the same in humans as it is in flies.”

Epilepsy Society has cautiously welcomed the latest study but stressed that there was a long way to go.

The charity’s medical director Professor Ley Sander said: “This is exciting news from the researchers at the University of Manchester and their findings certainly hold promise for the future. Being able to switch off epilepsy at the embryonic stage would be a huge step forward but I feel this is still many years away.

“I shall look forward to future developments with their research, particularly when they move from fruit flies to mammals.”

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