New funding to help find cause of sudden unexpected death in epilepsy

Dr. Stuart Cain, Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health

Images by Penelope Slack

Why do some otherwise healthy people with epilepsy experience fatal seizures? New Taking Flight Award funding from Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy (CURE) will help Dr. Stuart Cain investigate sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP) at the source.

SUDEP-related death is unusual, in that it occurs without warning and is not associated with any identifiable anatomical cause post-mortem. Researchers believe that severe seizures may be related to the cause of death, but do not yet know what causes only some seizures to be fatal.

Dr. Cain (pictured), a research associate in Dr. Terrance Snutch’s lab, aims to build on current scientific theory that in some cases the region of the brain responsible for breathing and cardiac function becomes inactive during seizures, causing death. Dr. Cain’s team has developed a method to monitor the brain during SUDEP-like seizures in real-time.

The team will take a cross-disciplinary approach, examining SUDEP pathophysiology using in vivo imaging (MRI), traditional brain activity monitoring (EEG) combined with in vitro analyses of brain tissue using high-resolution microscopy and patch-clamp tools.

“Working with the UBC 7T-MRI facility, we’ve been able to observe in a model system that inactivity in the brain stem spreads throughout specific brain structures during SUDEP-related seizures,” Dr. Cain explains. “In this project we will identify brain regions near the brainstem that are sensitive to the wave of inactivity in order to find ways to stop the fatal spread.”

Beginning in January 2017, Dr. Cain’s CURE-funded research will build on a technique his team originally refined to track brain swelling during migraines. There are similarities in the way that migraines and epilepsy affect the brain, and this study will bring together several areas of Dr. Cain’s recent research building on work supported by the BC Epilepsy Society. His team’s technique will make it possible to image the entire brain during seizures and see which regions are sensitive to the wave of inactivity.

“Once we’re able to see how the brain’s inactivity is perpetuated, then we can target the affected areas of the brain for experimental therapies,” Dr. Cain explains. “Part of the project will address our work on an experimental drug that has demonstrated potential to extend the lifespan of our SUDEP model in preliminary experiments.”

“Dr. Cain’s CURE Taking Flight Award speaks to the fabulous progress and impact that he has made probing epilepsies at multiple levels,” says Dr. Terrance Snutch. “This award will greatly aid the team’s immediate goals in uncovering the underlying mechanisms of SUDEP.”

Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy (CURE) is the leading nongovernmental agency fully committed to funding research in epilepsy. CURE Taking Flight Awards aim to promote young investigators and allow them to develop a research focus independent of their mentor(s).