A potential method of predicting who will get epilepsy following a brain infection, such as that brought on by malaria, has been discovered. This breakthrough is the result of work by two CURE grantees, Dr. Bruce Gluckman and Dr. Steven Schiff of Pennsylvania State University.
Individuals who contract cerebral malaria (malaria accompanied by a coma, typically spread by mosquitos) are at a substantially increased risk of developing epilepsy.1 Malaria is especially widespread in non-industrialized areas of the world and often affects children.2 Because malaria is so widespread, it may be the most significant cause of post-infection epilepsy in the world today. Currently, there are no methods to predict who will develop epilepsy, or any means of preventing epilepsy after such an infection.
This makes Dr. Gluckman and Dr. Schiff’s discovery so critical. Together with their team members Fatemeh Bahari and Dr. Paddy Sstentongo, they found a combination of brain and heart activity in mice that could accurately predict which animals would develop seizures and epilepsy after infection with malaria.3
Using their CURE grant, Drs. Gluckman and Schiff studied the connection between cerebral malaria and epilepsy by first developing a mouse “model” replicating malaria-induced epilepsy. In addition, they investigated possible ways to determine which mice would go on to develop epilepsy after infection.
Using the mice which developed epilepsy after infection with malaria, the research team measured two important variables often associated with epilepsy: the activity of the brain and heart. They found abnormal brain activity immediately followed by abnormal heart activity – but only in the animals which went on to develop epilepsy.
This discovery represents a possible biomarker for predicting epilepsy following infection with malaria. In other words, these may be measurable indicators to determine the infected individuals who will develop epilepsy. Furthermore, the abnormal brain and heart activity was detectable as early as 14 weeks before the first seizure, opening a potential window during which therapeutic interventions might be used to prevent epilepsy.
Drs. Gluckman and Schiff plan to continue this work, using these findings to develop treatment methods for people who contract cerebral malaria to prevent them from developing epilepsy. They are hopeful their discovery will lead to a means to eliminate not only post-malarial epilepsy, but also epilepsy caused by other types of brain injuries.
1 Ngoungou and Preux. Cerebral malaria and epilepsy. Epilepsia 2008; 49(s6):19-24.
2 World Health Organization. World malaria report 2017. http://www.who.int/malaria/publications/world-malaria-report-2017/report/en/.
3 Bahari et al. A brain-heart biomarker for epileptogenesis. J Neurosci 2018; pii: 1130-18.