Home Technology Cutting-edge technology warns of epileptic seizures

Cutting-edge technology warns of epileptic seizures

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Cutting-edge technology warns of epileptic seizures

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder that affects about 50 million people worldwide (Photo: CC0 Public Domain)

by Anthony King

People with epilepsy will soon be able to receive a one-minute warning of an impending seizure using a new medical device – a headset developed by researchers in Spain.

A seizure can put a person at risk of injury in everyday situations that many other people take for granted. This often causes epilepsy sufferers to avoid normal activities such as cycling, swimming or climbing a steep slope.

Paternal support

However, wearers of the new device can rest assured that they will receive a warning before an attack begins and will be able to take the necessary precautions. Dr. David Blankes, who is an engineer, was motivated to invent the earpiece for very personal reasons.

“We started this project because of my daughter Marina, who has epilepsy,” says Blankes.

He is involved in robotics research, but realizes the need for people like his daughter to wear a device that can warn them of an impending convulsion.

“She was having a lot of seizures in different situations, some of which were very dangerous for her,” said Blankes, CEO of MJN Neuro, the Spanish company that developed the headset.

The company is receiving EU funding through the 2019-2022 SERAS_v4.0 project to improve the device, which is already available in some European countries.

Although epilepsy sufferers today can wear bracelets or monitors that show their condition to others, they do not issue advance warning of seizures.

Handset application

The handset signals the likelihood of a seizure to an app on the patient’s mobile phone. A warning can also be sent to a family member or other person who cares for him.

The device constantly monitors brain activity through an electroencephalogram, recording basic medical information and building an algorithm that gets better over time at recognizing signs of an impending seizure.

The main goal is to offer an advance warning of at least one minute, according to Blankes, who says it’s possible for some users of the device it could be earlier.

“We customize the algorithm for each patient because the brain of each person with epilepsy is different,” he says.

A seizure occurs when the brain has a breakdown. Only about one person in 20 recognizes the signs of a seizure before it occurs.

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder that affects about 50 million people worldwide, or 1% of the world’s population. About 6 million people in Europe suffer from this disease, which may be caused by genetic factors, head trauma, viral infections or damage before birth. About half of the cases have no explanation.

Sudden death

In rare cases, epilepsy can cause death, even in apparently healthy children and young adults.

Dr Esther Rodriguez-Villegas, an electrical engineer at Imperial College London, is working on a solution through the EU-funded NOSUDEP project. The project started in 2017 and will continue until 2024.

Sudden death occurs in roughly one in 1,000 people with epilepsy, most often in people ages 21 to 40, according to Rodriguez-Villegas.

A study conducted in recent years has shed some light on the mystery, finding that death can occur when a person stops breathing for a moment during sleep, a condition known as apnea.

This relationship was found when monitoring epilepsy patients in hospital before surgery. Some of them stopped breathing.

When the nurse noticed what was happening within three minutes, the patients were revived and survived. If the time interval is between 5 and 10 minutes, only a few are saved. After 10 minutes, according to Rodriguez-Villegas, it is too late for all patients. She cited a 2013 study published in the journal Lancet Neurology.

Sleeping and breathing

Although many people stop breathing during sleep, they resume breathing on their own. In some people with epilepsy, the brain apparently fails to hit the restart button.

“I met families of people who died of unexpected epilepsy,” says Rodriguez-Villegas. “I decided I wanted to do something to help them.”

Her plan is to develop a non-invasive device that patients can wear at night that will alert them — them or a family member — when a problem arises.

But because this is research on the edge of the unknown, not product development, it has had to take into account new clinical evidence, which adds to the complexity.

“I thought I could do this with apnea tracking, but now I know it’s much more complicated,” says Rodriguez-Villegas.

False alarms

Part of the problem is that it doesn’t make sense for the device to just flash parents at 3 in the morning that their child is at risk of death. It must be extremely reliable.

“What we found is that patients with epilepsy do have sleep apnea, but the vast majority of apneas are actually very short-lived,” says Rodriguez-Villegas.

These short periods should be ignored by the device so that there are no false alarms that cause unnecessary anxiety and deter people from using it.

Rodriguez-Villegas’ goal now is to develop a warning system that is as reliable as possible. It will be based on data from a device that can monitor breathing, heart rate, oxygen saturation levels, sounds made and even sleeping position.

In the best-case scenario, some kind of device worn on or around the neck could be available in five years, according to Rodriguez-Villegas. However, she warns that it may take longer.

Back in Spain, Blankes’ seizure warning headset is available for around €1,700. It can also be bought in the UK and will soon be in Germany.

“We need a solution for people with epilepsy that can enable them to do more of their daily activities,” says Blankes.

The research in this article was funded through the European Research Council (ERC) of the EU. It was first published in Horizonthe EU research and innovation journal.

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