According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are around 50 million people with epilepsy worldwide. Although drugs are available to control epileptic seizures, these only provide symptomatic relief. They cannot prevent the condition from worsening, and if people with epilepsy stop taking their medication, there is no lasting effect on the severity or frequency of their seizures.
Some epilepsy cases are also resistant to these drugs. This is particularly common in adults with temporal epilepsy, with 30% of people continuing to suffer with seizures despite receiving medication. Current treatments also have no effect on problems with learning, memory and mental health that sometimes accompany drug-resistant epilepsy.
Previous studies in animals have identified some potential treatments that could slow the progression of temporal epilepsy, but these have only been shown to work when used at a very early stage. Since most individuals with temporal epilepsy have already started having seizures when they are diagnosed (and it is difficult to predict who will develop the condition), these drugs are unlikely to be useful in practice.
Here, Casillas-Espinosa et al. set out to find if a novel drug called sodium selenate can stop the progression of epilepsy and reduce the severity of temporal epilepsy when the condition is fully advanced. To do this, they used an animal model of temporal epilepsy, where rats had been modified to develop spontaneous seizures, resistance to normal anti-seizure medications, and problems with learning and memory.
Casillas-Espinosa et al. found that sodium selenate not only reduced the number and severity of seizures in these model rats, but also improved their memory and learning ability. Several rats stopped having seizures altogether even after the treatment had stopped, indicating that sodium selenate had a long-lasting protective effect. Genetic analysis of the rats also revealed that shorter telomeres (special DNA sequences at the ends of chromosomes) correlated with increasing severity of the condition, suggesting that telomere length could help predict who might develop temporal epilepsy or respond best to treatment.
This study identifies sodium selenate as a potential treatment that could reverse the progression of temporal epilepsy, even in individuals with advanced symptoms. Later this year, sodium selenate will be trialled in people with drug-resistant temporal epilepsy to determine if the drug benefits humans in the same way. Casillas-Espinosa et al. hope that it will improve participants’ epilepsy and, ultimately, their quality of life.