Common drug may advance epilepsy treatment

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A common prescription drug may prevent epilepsy from developing in its early stages, UC Berkeley researchers discovered, marking this treatment of epilepsy as the first of its kind.

Epilepsy is a chronic disorder defined by frequent seizures or short episodes of involuntary trembling that can affect the entire body. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 50 million people in the world suffer from epilepsy. The disorder often develops in patients who have experienced brain injuries or stroke, and no known effective clinical treatment exists for the disorder.

But researchers at UC Berkeley and abroad believe a clinical treatment could exist for epilepsy. Losartan, a common drug used to treat hypertension, or high blood pressure, can block the development of epilepsy and eradicate it completely, said Daniela Kaufer, a campus associate professor of integrative biology who heads the international collaboration of researchers.

“It’s a one-time dose at the right time,” Kaufer said, referring to losartan’s potential to eliminate epilepsy if administered early in the disorder’s development.

The findings, which accrue a decade’s worth of research, were recently released online in Annals of Neurology, a scientific journal. Kaufer worked with co-authors Alon Friedman, an associate professor in the department of physiology and neurobiology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, and Uwe Heinemann, a professor of neurophysiology at Charite — University Medicine in Germany.

To test the effectiveness of losartan, researchers applied the drug on cell cultures before advancing onto the brains of rats and mice. After placing losartan in the rats’ drinking water, researchers discovered that the ingested drug prevented epilepsy in about 60 percent of tested rats and decreased the severity of epilepsy in the remaining 40 percent.

Epilepsy can be triggered by damage to the blood-brain barrier, which is composed of a network of vessels that protects the brain from toxic substances. Losartan functions by entering the brain through the torn blood-brain barrier, where it then blocks the signaling of a specific protein in the brain to prevent seizure development.

Looking forward, the team plans to advance to clinical trials within the next few years, said Guy Bar-Klein, one of the researchers and a doctorate student at Ben-Gurion University. Researchers also plan to continue working in the lab to study the development of epilepsy, especially forms of the disorder that do not arise after brain injury or stroke. They also hope to pinpoint biomarkers, which are indicators that determine whether a patient will develop epilepsy following a brain injury.

Researchers hope that once clinical trials are complete, patients who have suffered traumatic brain injury or stroke can be administered losartan to prevent the development of epilepsy.

Lydia Tuan covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @tuanlydia.

Clarification(s):
A previous version of this article stated that researchers believe a clinical treatment definitely exists for epilepsy. In fact, they believe a clinical treatment could exist.

A previous version of this article also stated that losartan decreased the severity of seizures. While this aspect of the drug is true, the main result was that losartan is able to prevent epilepsy.

A previous version of this article also stated that the blood brain barrier is a network of vessels that protects the brain from toxic substances. In fact, the blood brain barrier is composed of a network of vessels.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article stated that the findings were published in the March 2014 edition of Annals of Neurology. In fact, the findings were released online on the journal’s website and have yet to be published.

A previous version of this article also stated that losartan is an over-the-counter drug. In fact, losartan is a prescription drug.