Pic by David Caird. Courtesy of Herald Sun

World-first trial offers hope for epilepsy sufferers

A world-first trial taking place at Austin Health will deliver electrical pulses to the "master control centre" in the brain, aiming to halt seizures and restore clear thinking in those whose severe epilepsy doesn't respond to treatment.

The trial of deep brain stimulation therapy is for patients with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, an aggressive type of daily epilepsy that typically appears in childhood and causes learning difficulty. The syndrome also causes "drop attacks" - seizures that send them randomly crashing to the ground or through walls, resulting in serious injuries such as broken bones, fractured skulls and chipped teeth.

Medication or surgery are ineffective for up to a quarter of epilepsy sufferers.

The study is being led by Austin Health and The University of Melbourne and has received $1 million in funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council.

Austin Health neurologist Dr John Archer is the trial's Lead Investigator.
"The major cognitive functions like attention are not located in one spot in the brain, but across a number of key nodes in the network," Dr Archer says.

"When epilepsy gets into these, it's a fundamental disruption to the brain.

"This led to the idea that's what's needed is a treatment that tackles the network of the brain."

Similar to deep brain stimulation to treat the tremors and stiffness of Parkinson's disease, the trial will involve placing a pair of electrodes in the brain, connected by internal wires to a pacemaker box on the chest.

The stimulation target is the thalamus, the "Flinders St railway station of the brain" as the relay station for electrical signalling controlling sensory and motor tasks.

Dr Archer says the double-blinded study will see 20 patients implanted in the next 18 months.

"My biggest hope is we can prove this significantly reduces seizures," Dr Archer said.

"If we can also show there is improvement in cognitive function, it would be a bonus."

South Morang woman Janina Freestone, 48, will be one of the first to take part in the trial.

Janina's seizures started at three, and she has trialled various medications as well as a different brain stimulation therapy but both have had limited success in controlling the drop attacks and absent seizures she experiences multiple times each day.

"I have no independence I can't drive, I can't leave the house on my own," Ms Freestone says.

Ms Freestone says her condition also forced her to give up her job as a retail assistant, something she misses dearly.

She and her family are optimistic that the trial may lead to improvement.

"I'm hoping for a better life. I feel like I'm in cotton wool at the moment and I just want to get out,'' Ms Freestone says.

Surgery in the first patients is expected to begin by the end of the year.