Exciting findings from a recent study indicated that scientists "discovered a mechanism that controls the mix of cells in the developing brain". This, said the authors of the study, may mean that medical experts are a few steps closer to understanding and better treating conditions like epilepsy. By focusing on the initial development of the brain and the nervous system, and focusing in on the underlying factors that offset or unbalance this delicate blend of cells, they made some truly profound discoveries.
Many diagnosed with epilepsy know that their condition is caused by a disruption in the electrical balance of the brain. Scientifically speaking, that imbalance is caused by a clash between the forces of excitation and inhibition. The excitation is caused by the nerve cells known as neurons and the inhibition is brought about by the nerve cells known as inhibitory interneurons.
When there is not an adequate number of inhibitory interneurons to control brain activity, it can result in seizures such as those experienced by patients with various forms of epilepsy, as well as a list of other neurological disorders. Naturally, if there could be a way to prevent offsets in the balance between the two would mean that issues such as autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, epilepsy and other difficult disorders could be brought under control, even prevented.
From the Beginning
The scientists built upon earlier studies that explained how the total number of inhibitory interneurons in the brain is determined by the process of cellular death. In this process, surplus neurons are removed from the "network" within the brain. And so the scientists decided to really start at the very beginning and look at just what happens to those inhibitory interneurons during brain development hoping to see how the entire process of cell death and removal transpired.
As the senior author of the study, Dr. Vassilis Pachnis explained, "We knew that interneuron numbers were controlled by cell death, but until now we didn't know how it happened… We found that neuron activity itself regulates the survival of inhibitory interneurons…"
So, the scientists used genetic approaches to actually adjust total numbers of interneurons and keep the brain's network more active. When they did, that activity actually prevented the interneurons from experiencing cell death.
The Developing Brain
Though their concept is in its most initial stages, it offers medical experts a fairly accurate approach to controlling interneuron populations in the brain, which in turn ensures that a balanced ratio of inhibition and excitation will exist at all times.
It is important to keep in mind that this study was undertaken on the developing nervous system and not the brain activity of adults diagnosed with epilepsy. The study was done with the use of chemogenetics and advanced cellular grafting techniques and focused on the developing brains of laboratory subjects. However, the results were clear, and as Vassilis stated, demonstrated that "increased survival of transplanted interneurons with increased levels of intrinsic activity could be exploited as a potential therapeutic approach for the treatment of brain disorders such as epilepsy."
With the results of this study, it is clear that a deeper understanding of the mechanisms behind certain neurological conditions, such as epilepsy, are of more value than imagined. Using these advanced technologies and the data pooled from such studies, it is entirely possible to see a new array of treatment options emerging. Yes, it will take time, but the team at Francis Crick Institute, which did this study, has made a tremendous leap forward in uncovering an earlier and more effective method of overcoming conditions like epilepsy.