Unlocking Epilepsy: Reframing the Question

By Shlomo Maital

   At Davin School, in Regina, Saskatchewan (Canada), an elementary school, I had a classmate who had epilepsy. From time to time he would have a seizure. Everyone knew what to do – put a pencil between his teeth (to keep him from biting his tongue or swallowing it), and bring him to the Principal’s Office, where he could lie on a couch and sleep. I don’t know how he fared as an adult – but here is what Wikipedia tells us about epilepsy worldwide:

   As of 2015 about 39 million people have epilepsy.   Nearly 80% of cases occur in the developing world. In 2015 it resulted in 125,000 deaths up from 112,000 deaths in 1990.     Epilepsy is more common in older people. About 5–10% of people will have an unprovoked seizure by the age of 80, and the chance of experiencing a second seizure is between 40 and 50%.

What causes epilepsy?   A lot of research has been done, to answer this question, without definitive results. Sometimes, to crack a problem, you have to reframe the question. This is what a research team at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, led by Prof. Hermona Soreq, has done. Her team included researchers from Ben Gurion University and Dalhousie University, in Canada.   Soreq asked instead, why don’t more people have epilepsy? What actually prevents it?  

   I recalled that the discovery of an anti-Multiple Sclerosis drug, Copaxone, at Israel’s Weizmann Institute, results from similar reframing – how can we induce MS (to study it, in mice), rather how can we cure it?

Soreq’s team used rats, genetically engineered to over-produce a protein, micro RNA 211, that they suspected helped protect the brain from epilepsy. These mice were then given a chemical that lowers the concentration of this protein. Lo and behold, the mice developed epileptic tendencies.

Soreq observes:  “We tend to research what causes disease and how to prevent it. We don’t ask why most people don’t get sick, though we should.  Instead of finding medicines to cure conditions, it would be better to find what protects healthy brains.”

   The results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The hope is, discovery of the role of microRNA 211 will lead to new treatments for epilepsy.