Sunday, March 29, 2009

DOE Helping Patients

At the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), researchers are developing technology to improve life for epileptics. They have devised a computer-based method that will warn an epileptic that a seizure might occur in the next 20 minutes or so, giving the person time to stop hazardous activities or get medical help to prevent or reduce the severity of the seizure.

This alerting system referred to as “SeizAlert” has dime-sized electrodes worn by the individual that looks for pattern changes in the brain waves and then alerts the epileptic that a seizure is imminent. SeizAlert was developed at ORNL and researchers are working with Nicolet Biomedical Inc., in Madison Wisconsin to develop a commercial version of the system.

At another DOE laboratory, scientists at the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory are trying to understand epileptic seizures and why they occur. Scientists have created a life-like model of small areas in the brain using state-of-the-art high performance computers.

For many years, computer scientists have used complex models known as “neural networks” to model brain activity. Since each neuron can receive information in the form of an electrical pulse from thousands to tens of thousands of other neurons, scientists need an extremely powerful computer to handle all of the model’s interconnections. Neural network models give scientists a way to piece together things to understand how epileptic behavior translates from the action of just a few neurons to a behavior affecting the entire brain.

According to Argonne computer scientist Mark Hereld, models of neural networks provide a glimpse into epilepsy that complements information obtainable through clinical or laboratory studies. He continued to say “there are some questions that simply can’t be answered by examining a live patient or looking at a small piece of brain tissue in the lab.”