A new approach to epilepsy diagnosis

Managing epilepsy: smart implants to keep the doctor away

“When you have epilepsy you feel useless. You crave independence”.
Hannah Galvin

Epilepsy can prevent people from enjoying the things the rest of us take for granted – swimming, driving, even holding down a job, as seizures can strike at any time.

Current treatment options are drugs and surgery, but for some epilepsy patients such as Hannah Galvin these may not be effective.

We have been working for several years to develop a brain implant that would predict when a seizure is about to take place, and apply a therapeutic stimulus to prevent it occurring – all without the patient feeling anything.

Hannah took part in experimental brain stimulation to help neurologist Professor Mark Cook and his team gather data to develop this life-changing implant.

She hopes that the research gained during her hospital visits can help improve epilepsy sufferers’ lives in the future.

Background

Over 250,000 Australians are currently living with epilepsy, which is the most common brain disorder worldwide and can affect people at any stage of their lives. Diagnosis can be difficult in some people, while others experience problems with effectively managing their seizures through drug therapies.

A definite diagnosis of epilepsy can be challenging in some patients, especially if seizure-like events are infrequent. Currently, conventional EEG recordings are used to detect epileptic events, but this clinical tool has its limitations. It is not possible for the EEG electrodes to be fixed to the scalp for prolonged periods, and repeated in-patient monitoring sessions are very expensive and may not capture an event.

Conventional EEG recordings are also unsatisfactory for another major problem faced by clinicians – the sometimes difficult management of drug therapies to relieve seizures and the reliance on patient diaries. In some patients, getting the drug regime correct can be a lengthy, trial and error process.

To address these clinical issues we need a means of continuously recording brain activity over long periods. This would have a profound impact on the lives of individuals and their carers, as well as the clinicians who manage their treatment.

Our research

Patients with undiagnosed epilepsy and those experiencing difficulty in epilepsy drug management face ongoing stress, risks, and uncertainty when carrying out their normal daily activities.

For over a decade, the Bionics Institute, with its collaborators at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne and the University of Melbourne, have been researching and developing a small implantable device to improve the diagnosis and management of epilepsy and seizure-related conditions. Our approach has been to develop a small, thin and flexible implant to be inserted under the scalp that will allow the long-term monitoring of brain activity. This will require minimal surgery and risk, in much the same way as implantable monitors are currently used to diagnose heart abnormalities.

We have recently completed the critical pre-clinical studies to test that the sub-scalp system is safe and effective. We continue to refine the prototype implant and its associated recording hardware and software, determine its best placement and stability, as well as develop specialised surgical instruments for its implantation.

The research team envisages that a future device will also have the capability of improving patient safety through remote monitoring and incorporating a ‘call-home’ function to alert carers of a seizure.

Our research to date has provided the crucial groundwork for a future clinical trial expected to commence in 2019.

In June 2018 this research culminated in the establishment of the new start-up company Epi-Minder Pty Ltd, which will enable clinical trial and commercialisation of the seizure monitoring device. This new Australian venture has received initial investment from Cochlear Limited and Australian private investors (see press release).

Research team

Principal investigatorsA/Prof Chris WilliamsProfessor Mark Cook (Chair of Medicine at the University of Melbourne; Neurologist at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne; Bionics Institute Honorary Clinical Research Fellow), Prof Peter SeligmanDr Yuri Benovitski
Research engineers
Mr Owen Burns, Mr Rodney Millard

Funding

NHMRC Development Grant, The Harry Secomb Foundation, Percy Baxter Charitable Trust, and the Eirene Lucas Foundation

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