Epilepsy affects some 60 million people worldwide, and for 40 per cent of them, the drugs don't work—conventional treatments show no effect against their disease. And while the seizures themselves are generally brief, the constant gnaw of not knowing when the next one will strike severely impacts patients' quality of life. This prototype early warning implant could give epileptics the freedom to live their lives.
The device is the brainchild of Professor Mark Cook, Chair of Medicine at the University of Melbourne and Director of Neurology at St Vincent's Hospital, and his team.
"One to two per cent of the population have chronic epilepsy and up to 10 percent of people will have a seizure at some point in their lives, so it's very common. It's debilitating because it affects young people predominantly and it affects them often across their entire lifespan," Professor Cook in a press statement. "The problem is that people with epilepsy are, for the most part, otherwise extremely well. So their activities are limited entirely by this condition, which might affect only a few minutes of every year of their life, and yet have catastrophic consequences like falls, burns and drowning."
The device utilises a pair of implants and a handheld monitor to track and categorise abnormal brain functions thought to portend a seizure. The first implant, made by Seattle's NeuroVista, sits between the brain and inside of the skull to slurp EEG data. This data is transmitted via electrodes running inside the body to the chest cavity (we are now wiring people like houses) where they connect to a second implant that wirelessly transmits the data to a handheld monitor. The monitor then interprets and categorises the likelihood of a seizure occurring within the few hours—red lights mean a high danger of one occurring, white signifies a moderate chance, and blue indicates a low probability. Cook's team recently concluded a two year, 15-patient study using the device with significant results. After calibrating the algorithm to each patient's individual EEG data, the systems correctly warned of a red alert 65 per cent of the time. And for eight patients, the system overall was between 56 and 100 per cent accurate.
The results are promising but this was just a proof-of-concept study. Cook's team must now replicate this success in a larger, statistically significant, study before submitting it for government certification. Don't hold your breath, it's going to be a while.