MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
Most people with epilepsy take drugs to control their seizures. If drugs along don't work, surgery can help. But now researchers are trying a new approach. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports on an experimental device that prevents seizures by sending electrical signals through the skin to the brain.
JON HAMILTON: Epilepsy struck Jenny Rees when she was fourteen.
Ms. JENNY REES: I felt that I was falling and I tried to grab on to the counter and it looked to me like my hand just passed right through it. And I lost consciousness before I hit the floor.
HAMILTON: She'd just had her first epileptic seizure - a sort of electrical storm in the brain. And seizures would become a part of life for Rees. At one point she was having eight a month.
But Rees, who is 49 now and lives in Los Angeles, hasn't had a seizure in nearly two years. She says a big part of the reason is a device the size of a cell phone that delivers pulses of electricity to her forehead.
Ms. REES: For me all it involved was putting two gel pads above my eyebrows, one on each eyebrow. My husband laughs at me because I look like a Martian a little bit because I have a couple of wires coming out of, you know, from my eyebrows.
HAMILTON: Rees says she could hide the wires with a scarf, but doesn't because she uses the device only at night.
The system was invented by Christopher DeGiorgio, a neurologist at UCLA. DeGiorgio says it works because the electrical pulses stimulate a nerve that runs right beneath the skin near the eyebrows. It's called the trigeminal nerve.
Dr. CHRISTOPHER DEGIORGIO (Neurologist, UCLA): Most people's experience with the trigeminal nerve is first in the dentist's office, because the trigeminal nerve connects to all the teeth.
HAMILTON: The trigeminal nerve also travels through areas of the brain responsible for seizures.
DeGiorgio says doctors have shown that delivering electrical pulses to these areas can prevent seizures. So he figured, why not deliver those pulses by stimulating the trigeminal nerve.
Dr. DEGIORGIO: The concept was that perhaps if you could have the patient use this device through the day or the night that it would prevent seizures. And that's indeed how it works.
HAMILTON: A small study found that about 40 percent of people who used the stimulator had a significant reduction in seizures.
There are other ways to send electrical pulses to the brain, but they involve surgery. It's also sometimes possible to remove a part of the brain that's causing seizures. And there are now many different drugs for epilepsy. But DeGiorgio says some patients don't want surgery and don't like the drugs.
Dr. DEGIORGIO: They cause mood problems. They can cause fatigue, obesity, confusion, problems with thinking, problems with concentration. So I really do see this as an alternative because it doesn't cause those side effects.
HAMILTON: Jenny Rees says side effects were a major reason she tried the trigeminal nerve stimulator.
Ms. REES: A lot of these medications are sedating and, you know, I like my brain to be active and responsive and so any kind of sedating medication is not my favorite choice.
HAMILTON: Rees says the device allows her to take such low doses of medication that she doesn't feel sedated. And she says the stimulator itself doesn't cause any discomfort.
Ms. REES: It's just a slight tingling sensation. It's way less than pins and needles, and I've been using it so much I don't even notice it when it goes on.
HAMILTON: DeGiorgio says he's found a surprising benefit to trigeminal nerve stimulation. It tends to relieve depression, which is common among people with epilepsy. The device isn't approved by the FDA yet. That's probably several years off.
Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
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