Epilepsy researcher awarded prestigious Chancellor’s prize – Bionics Institute

Epilepsy researcher awarded prestigious Chancellor’s prize

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Dr Dean Freestone (right) with Institute Honorary Research Fellow Assoc Prof David Grayden (Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, University of Melbourne).

The Chancellor’s prize recognises the University of Melbourne’s high-achieving graduate researchers and is awarded annually to six PhD graduates.  Dean received the prize for his thesis “Epileptic seizure prediction and the dynamics of the electrical fields of the brain”.

Epilepsy is a chronic disorder of the brain that results in recurrent and unpredictable seizures that adversely affect patients’ lives.  Approximately 3 per cent of the general population will experience epilepsy at some point during their lives, and of these up to one third cannot gain control of the condition through medication or other means. The uncertainty of when seizures may occur can lead to a withdrawal from everyday activities and a reduction in quality of life.

There is evidence that the brain undergoes subtle changes prior to seizures. Dean’s PhD research involved developing techniques to evaluate and track cortical excitability in patients scheduled for epilepsy surgery. He demonstrated that his method to predict an impending seizure was both safe and effective. The ultimate aim of this research is to incorporate this predictive method into an implantable device that anticipates a seizure and then prevents it from occurring by applying a therapeutic electrical stimulus.

Dean chose to study engineering at the University of Melbourne and the Bionics Institute because he believed that this would give him the best opportunity to make a real world contribution to the treatment of neurological disorders, such as epilepsy. Dean said, “The connection that the engineering department had with the neurology department at St. Vincent’s Hospital and the Bionics Institute seemed, and turned out to be, truly unique.”

“A highlight of my PhD was working with my supervisors. Through interactions with them I was able to gain insight into a broad range of topics from neurology to machine learning algorithms and computational neuroscience. I really enjoyed the breadth of the topics covered. This enabled me to take ideas from engineering and implement them in the labs at the Bionics Institute and in the ward at St. Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne. Furthermore, I valued the relationships with my lab mates and fellow PhD students. Through them I was able to gain insight into a broad range of research topics in neuro-engineering and form strong friendships.”

“Working at the Bionics Institute I gained experience in many different theoretical and experimental approaches which have put me in good stead for my career as a scientist. Also, a great strength of the Institute is the opportunity to not just learn about one type of bionic device, but a range of devices for the ear, eye and brain.”

Dean was awarded his PhD in 2012 and worked as a research fellow at the Bionics Institute for a short time before taking up a position at the University of Melbourne where he continues to work in epilepsy research.

Dean’s research was part of an Australian Research Council funded collaborative project between the University of Melbourne (Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering), St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne (Department of Clinical Neurosciences) and the Bionics Institute. He was supervised by Associate Professor David Grayden, Professor Anthony Burkitt, Professor Mark Cook and Dr Levin Kuhlmann.

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