Neuroscientists from RCSI (Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland) have made a breakthrough in understanding what controls gene activity in epilepsy, a disease associated with excessive electrical activity in the brain that gives rise to seizures. The findings may also help explain why epileptic states can be so persistent. The research will be published in the March edition of the leading neurology journal Brain. Today marks International Epilepsy Awareness Day, to raise awareness of this condition that affects approximately 37,000 people in Ireland.
Epilepsy is often associated with altered levels of genes in the brain and this is thought to make the brain more excitable. The researchers looked for a chemical change to DNA called methylation which acts as a long-lasting on / off switch for gene activity and is thought to be one way that brain cells store biochemical memories. More than 30,000 gene sites were studied using brain tissue from patients with epilepsy. The research found that a number of human genes are controlled in this way and many were not previously linked to epilepsy. In some cases, the more DNA methylation that occurred, the more gene activity was turned off. The research also found that certain types of genes are more likely than others to be under this type of control.
The epigenetic landscape of human temporal lobe epilepsy
Dr Suzanne Miller-Delaney, lead author of the study said “This study is the first of its kind in human epilepsy. It specifically aligns deterioration of parts of the brain with structural changes in patient DNA and gene activity. The study can help us to understand what is controlling gene activity in epilepsy and why the epileptic state can be so persistent.”
Professor David Henshall, from the RCSI Department of Physiology & Medical Physics and Principal Investigator for the study adds “Epilepsy affects about 37,000 in Ireland and this study could potentially offer new targets for reversing epilepsy once established”.
The research was supported by a grant from Epilepsy Ireland, The Health Research Board (HRB) and Science Foundation Ireland (SFI). Additional researchers involved in the study included Prof Ray Stallings group from the Department of Molecular and Cellular Therapeutics at RCSI and researchers in Seattle, USA.