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Epileptic seizures have been recognized for centuries. But it was only in the 1930s that it was realized that seizures are the result of out-of-control electrical activity in the brain. By placing electrodes on the scalp, doctors can identify when and where in the brain a seizure begins. But they cannot tell much about how the seizure behaves, that is, how it starts, stops or spreads to other areas. This makes it difficult to control and prevent seizures. It also helps explain why almost a third of patients with epilepsy continue to have seizures despite being on medication.
Saggio, Crisp et al. have now approached this problem from a new angle using methods adapted from physics and engineering. In these fields, “dynamics research” has been used with great success to predict and control the behavior of complex systems like electrical power grids. Saggio, Crisp et al. reasoned that applying the same approach to the brain would reveal the dynamics of seizures and that such information could then be used to categorize seizures into groups with similar properties. This would in effect create for seizures what the periodic table is for the elements.
Applying the dynamics research method to seizure data from more than a hundred patients from across the world revealed 16 types of seizure dynamics. These “dynamotypes” had distinct characteristics. Some were more common than others, and some tended to occur together. Individual patients showed different dynamotypes over time. By constructing a way to classify seizures based on the relationships between the dynamotypes, Saggio, Crisp et al. provide a new tool for clinicians and researchers studying epilepsy.
Previous clinical tools have focused on the physical symptoms of a seizure (referred to as the phenotype) or its potential genetic causes (genotype). The current approach complements these tools by adding the dynamotype: how seizures start, spread and stop in the brain. This approach has the potential to lead to new branches of research and better understanding and treatment of seizures.