Dec. 23, 2021

UCalgary researchers aim to stop or prevent epileptic seizures

Schulich-designed 3D electrodes help monitor brain activity in rats
Conceptual image of a head with a fingerprint brain. Colourbox

“The brain is the most complex electrical circuit in the world — and we don’t know how it works.”

It’s a mystery that Dr. Colin Dalton, PhD, and several colleagues across the University of Calgary are working together to solve. The group is taking a multidisciplinary approach to narrow down how billions of neurons and other cells send signals to each other to control our bodies and thoughts.

The research they are doing to track those connections and get to the bottom of neurological disorders is the focus of a recently published paper in Scientific Reports.

Small-scale solutions

Dalton says our brains are complicated networks.

“Essentially, it creates who we are,” he says. “So, when the electrical signals go wrong, we get neurological disorders such as epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease and depression.”

To better track the signals, three-dimensional electrodes were developed at Schulich, then sent over to the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine to monitor seizure-related activity in freely behaving animals for up to eight months.

“This is the longest time that a set of electrodes has been implanted and it continued to monitor seizures in a rat model for that length of time,” says Dr. Naweed Syed, PhD.

Solving seizures

The researchers were able to record both the surface of the brain but also deeper parts, allowing them to monitor seizures every time they were triggered.

A major breakthrough was that these electrodes are more sensitive than what is already being used in clinics for detecting seizures in children. Our chip was also able to monitor brain activity over an extended time period at a resolution never achieved before.

- Naweed Syed

Dalton says the discovery opens doors for improving epilepsy neurosurgery for not only children, but for adults as well.

“These miniaturized sensors we have developed give neurosurgeons better tools to understand their patients’ conditions and ultimately give them better treatment options,” he says. “It allows the surgeon to remove the areas triggering the seizures and not normal tissue, which can sometimes result in the loss of normal brain functions.”

Dalton adds doctors could implant a pacemaker-like device to detect and prevent seizures from spreading once triggered — or stop them before they happen.

Just the beginning

Dalton says the work being done in UCalgary’s labs is another example of the multidisciplinary approach of the Biomedical Engineering program, which will soon become its own department at Schulich. It also gave PhD candidates like Thomas Lijnse an opportunity for integral hands-on experience.

“There is no better way to learn than to go out and apply all the theory and fundamentals in a hands-on setting,” says Lijnse, BSc (Eng)’19, who is one of the co-authors of the paper. “Here, we have incredible access to top-tier researchers in a wide variety of research areas which allows for incredible mentoring and learning opportunities.”

A spin-off company, Neuraura Biotech Inc., was created out of this work, with the researchers hoping to develop new designs and prototypes to get even more detailed maps of the brain.

“We are working to make these electrodes wireless so that the need of having patients attached to a 30-foot cable will be no more and they can just go home,” Syed says. “They could wear a small, portable backpack which could pick up any seizure that is triggered and the data would get transferred wirelessly to the hospital.”

Dr. Colin Dalton, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Software Engineering at the Schulich School of Engineering. He also serves as director of the Microsystems Hub.

Dr. Naweed Syed, PhD, is a professor in the departments of Cell Biology & Anatomy and Physiology and Pharmacology and member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine.

Led by the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, Brain and Mental Health is one of six research strategies guiding the University of Calgary toward its Eyes High goals. The strategy provides a unifying direction for brain and mental health research at the university and positions researchers to unlock new discoveries and treatments for brain health in our community.

The University of Calgary’s multidisciplinary Engineering Solutions for Health: Biomedical Engineering research strategy drives innovations that are saving lives and revolutionizing health care for Canadians.  With collaborative teams focused on human mobility, health monitoring, advanced biomedical imaging, precision biodiagnostics, regenerative medicine and novel medical technologies, our researchers are transforming quality of life and continuously improving the health system.