Epilepsy: Signals 'brake' in brain impaired

To date epilepsy research has mainly concentrated on the transmission of the nerve cell signals to what are known as the synapses. However, recent observations by medical researchers from the US, France and the University of Bonn support the idea that in 'falling sickness' the signal processing in the nerve cells (neurons) is altered: normally specific ion channels absorb the neuronal activity. In rats suffering from epilepsy, however, this signals brake seems impaired: they have far fewer functioning ion channels than healthy rats. The results are published in the latest edition of the prestigious scientific journal 'Science' (23rd July, vol. 305, no. 5683). They offer hope of new therapeutic possibilities.

Epilepsy is a common disease: in Germany alone there are 600,000 people whose nerve cells in the brain occasionally switch from healthy chaos to common mode. The result of the uncontrolled mass discharge of neurons is loss of consciousness and spastic convulsions of the muscles, during which those affected can seriously injure themselves. Yet how this synchronised paroxysmic activity develops at the level of nerve cells is still largely a mystery.

Nerve cells are interlinked via a large number of branching networks through which they communicate with each other. Each neuron has a series of dendrites which receive signals from other neurons at what are known as synapses. The cell 'processes' these incoming signals like a kind of biological microprocessor and transmits as a result electrical pulses via a special projection, the axon, to the dendrites of other neurons. Many epilepsy researchers have up to now assumed that when epilepsy occurs this communication between the cells does not work properly because the transmission of the signals to the synapses is impaired. However, the Bonn researchers in conjunction with their US colleagues and a research team from Marseilles discovered in the case of epileptic rats that the signal processing is not

Contact: Professor Heinz Beck
University of Bonn

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