Neurologists have always known that autoimmunity accounts for many nervous system disorders. A classical example is Sydenham’s chorea or St Vitus dance. This movement disorder develops after rheumatic fever, and is caused by antibodies to the bacterium called Streptocccus. The modern-day resurrection of this condition is called paediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections. I know, too long, but just call it PANDAS. A great acronym I must say, quite unlike ABGA which stands for anti basal ganglia antibody syndrome, an umbrella term for many movement disorders provoked by external agents.
A third group of neurological diseases are more sinister because the antibodies are generated by cancer cells. These paraneoplastic neurological syndromes are legion and protean, requiring a high index of suspicion to diagnose. Most frustrating for neurologists is that the cancer itself may not emerge for several years after the diagnosis of a paraneoplastic syndrome. Notorious for this cloak and dagger behaviour is small cell lung cancer (SCLC). Because of the potential consequences, neurologists deploy their heavy duty imaging scans such as positron emission tomography (PET) scans. They then lie low, year after year, waiting to nab the devious cancer as soon as it shows up.
In recent years, a completely different class of disorders has attained notoriety and infamy in the form of autoimmune encephalitis. These disorders often pretend to be infectious diseases, but they totally disregard the antibiotics and antiviral agents the neurologist attacks them with. By subterfuge and subversion they disable ion channels and receptors to cause havoc in the brain. And nobody has described such havoc better than Susannah Cahalan in her book Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness.
Autoimmune encephalitis may fester for weeks, years or decades, evading detection by its duplicitous behaviour, and by the increasing number of antibodies that may be responsible. There are however three main culprit antibodies which neurologists are now getting a grip on:
These conditions are all potentially fatal but eminently curable; this underlies the importance of recognising and treating them very early. A recent paper in Lancet Neurology summarises the clinical approach to autoimmune encephalitis(pdf).
Autoimmune neurology is a rapidly evolving field. I will review recent developments in this area in a second post to follow shortly titled What’s breaking at the cutting edge-of autoimmune neurology?
The management of epilepsy is very dependent on the accurate assessment of each patient’s day-to-day event pattern. In the simplest form, this is by a seizure diary. Seizures, the abnormal electrical brain activity that result in epilepsy, do not always manifest as recognisable events. Furthermore, many abnormal movements and behaviours do not necessarily arise from seizures. The neurologist therefore often recommends some form of prolonged brain activity monitoring to sort out what is actually happening. This is often done with procedures such as ambulatory electroencephalogram (EEG) and video EEG telemetry. These are all inconvenient and may only be used for a limited period. It is therefore reassuring that there are better techniques on the way. This press release from the World Federation of Neurology titled New epilepsy monitoring devices offer alternatives to inpatient video EEG lists ‘an array’ of devices such as the Brain Sentinel® System and the EEG PatchTM. These go further than just identifying the seizure activity; they‘allow patients to monitor clinical and subclinical seizure activity in the everyday home environment and get advance warning before a seizure strikes‘. What could be better for people with epilepsy?
3. Precision medicines for epilepsy
Epilepsy is a disease with several types and subtypes, and many genetic forms. Treating epilepsy therefore requires a close fit (no pun intended) of the disease type to its treatment. This is however a difficult task because many epilepsies are poorly defined, and the activity of anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs) are poorly understood. Whilst there are general principles of action of AEDs, these may not apply to individual patients. Herein then lies the promise of precision medicines which, making use of the patient’s genetic makeup or genome, offer a better match of AEDs to individuals. It is still early days but the course is being charted; the EpiPM Consortium recently published ‘A roadmap to precision medicines in the epilepsies‘ in Lancet Neurology.
4. Better prediction of SUDEP
Sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP) is a nightmare. It strikes out of the blues, shocking families and neurologists alike. How to predict and prevent this phenomenon is aholy grail in epilepsy care. It is therefore gratifying news in a recent article in the journal Brain that there is a potential SUDEP imaging biomarker. The authors of the paper, titledStructural imaging biomarkers of sudden unexpected death in epilepsy, report that the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of people at risk of SUDEP show characteristic signs. The main feature is a larger grey matter volume in the right hippocampus and amygdala. The rest of the story is more tricky to understand and involves impaired oxygen regulation leading to the abnormal heart rhythms that presumably cause SUDEP. OK, just take it that this is a potential biomarker to risk-stratify patients for SUDEP!
5. Out-of-hospital status epilepsy injections
A generalised tonic-clonic (or grand mal) seizure often self-terminates within 5 minutes. It may however be prolonged, or occur repeatedly, and this is called status epilepsy or status epilepticus. Out-of-hospital care to terminate status epilepticus often involves the use of buccal Midazolam or, thankfully fading into history, rectal Diazepam. The most effective short-term treatment is however intravenous Lorazepam, but this may only be administered in hospital. Is there something as effective as intravenous Lorazepam which could be administered by paramedics in the community? You guessed it, there probably is. A recent trial published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) shows that pre-hospital intramuscular Midazolam delivered by paramedics is effective. There are safety issues to sort out but this development promises to avert brain damage that may result from prolonged convulsions. Neuroscience News offers a simplified versionof this study.
6. Optogenetics to improve arousal during a seizure
The electroencephalogram (EEG) is an indispensable tool in the diagnosis of epilepsy. It helps, amongst other things, to localise the site of a seizure discharge, and to classify the epilepsy type. It is however a rather insensitive tool for planning epilepsy surgery compared to imaging techniques such as positron emission tomography (PET) and single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scans which are far better. 3D EEG is however set to make its mark in this area if a recent paper in Epilepsia fulfils its promise. Titled ‘The diagnostic utility of 3D electroencephalography source imaging in pediatric epilepsy surgery‘, the authors show that 3-D EEG is comparable to PET and SPECT in planning epilepsy surgery; and it is also cheaper and less risky.
8. Neurotransmitter imaging of epilepsy
Epilepsy surgery relies on accurate mapping of the seizure focus. Current techniques are however still suboptimal and scientists are exploring better ways of doing this. One promising field is neurotransmitter-based imaging, and the main neurotransmitter here is glutamate. This MRI technique called glutamate chemical exchange saturation transfer (GluCEST) promises to identify seizure foci that are otherwise difficult to detect. You may read the technical aspects in the original paperin Science Translational Medicine, or go for the layman’s versionin Neuroscience News.
An extension of glutamate imaging uses PET scans and relies on imaging NMDA, one type of glutamate receptor. This technique is reported in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry (JNNP) in an article titled NMDA receptor binding in focal epilepsies. The principle behind NMDA imaging is the knowledge that NMDA receptor ion channels are overactive in epilepsy. Isn’t it nice when science follows first principles!
9. Better mapping of seizure focus
Surgery is a very useful tool in treatment of drug-resistant epilepsy. Epilepsy surgery is however not universally successful because localisation of the seizure focus is often imprecise. One promising way to improve the localisation of the seizure focus is to map the changes in oxygen levels that occur in the brain during an epileptic seizure. A paper in the JNNP reports that this is feasible with the use of simultaneous EEG (electroencephalography) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). It’s all rather complicated stuff and I recommend this version from the Epilepsy Societywhich offers an excellently simplified summary.
10. Personalised epilepsy surgery
A holy grail of epilepsy (OK, there are many holy grails) is to individualise all types of epilepsy treatment, including surgery. Personalised epilepsy surgery is guided by a simulated model of a patient’s brain neural connections or connectome. This technique is reported in PLOS Computational Biology under the title Predicting surgery targets in temporal lobe epilepsy through structural connectome based simulations. Why scientists love long windy titles baffles me. Anyway, the authors first acquired a map of their subject’s brain connectivity using an MRI technique called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI). They then applied a computerised model of how a seizure propagates to the connectivity map. In this way they are able to establish a more accurate surgical target. The area that is resected at surgery using this technique produced better outcomes than resection using a standard procedure. Makes sense to me.
11. Endoscopic epilepsy surgery
Although surgery is a good technique for epilepsy, it is an invasive procedure with attendant risks. Endoscopy, using minimal access to perform great feats, reduces this risk significantly. It is widely practiced in medicine and indeed neurosurgeons use it to relieve raised intracranial pressure in some cases. It is therefore a relief to learn that major epilepsy operations may be performed endoscopically. A recent article in the Journal of Neuroscience titled ‘Endoscopic corpus callosotomy and hemispherectomyreports the effectiveness of endoscopy in epilepsy operations such as corpus callosotomy; a procedure that interrupts the large bundle of nerve fibers that connect the two brain hemispheres. You may read the easy versionin Mental Floss.
12. Deep brain stimulation for epilepsy
Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is now routine in many neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease (PD). Epilepsy has been slow to catch on but this is changing. A recent piece on the Mayo Clinic website peered into the future treatment options for epilepsyand referred to pacemaker-like devicesto control the seizure focus. There are many studies showing the feasibility and effectiveness of implantable devices which directly stimulate an epileptic focus to abort a seizure. One such system is Responsive Brain Neurostimulator (RNS® System). It may be counterintuitive but stimulation rather than suppression is the key. A review of Responsive neurostimulation in epilepsy says ‘the strategy is to interfere as early as possible with the accumulation of seizure activity to prematurely abort or even prevent an upcoming seizure’.
The future is bright for epilepsy care-and it can’t come soon enough for the millions of people whose lives are restricted and compromised by this disease.