How a tiny implant can stop seizures from happening Sous chef Kate Faulkner is one of the 3.4 million people in the U.S. living with epilepsy. But a recent electrical implant is allowing her to work, drive and live a fulfilling life.

How a tiny implant can stop seizures from happening

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

So we have talked about all kinds of brain hacks, and we want to end our show with a very personal story. So for people with neurological conditions like epilepsy, the lack of control over their brain can be terrifying.

KATE FAULKNER: It's very - it's a crushing limitation for sure.

ZOMORODI: This is Kate Faulkner. She's a sous chef in Colorado. She's also the sister of TED Radio Hour producer Rachel Faulkner White. And when Kate was a teenager, she started having tiny seizures called absence seizures.

FAULKNER: Where I would shake a little bit and drop whatever I was holding but I wouldn't blackout or fall over or lose consciousness or anything like that.

ZOMORODI: At the time, she didn't know what they were, and she wasn't formally diagnosed with epilepsy until a few years later.

FAULKNER: My first big seizure was in the summer of 2017, and luckily, I was with other people, but I have no memory of it happening. It was one minute I was sitting at the kitchen table, and the next minute, I was with a bunch of EMTs who were in the living room with me.

ZOMORODI: After that, Kate had started on medications that were supposed to prevent these seizures, and they seemed to help at first. But a few years later, she had another big one.

FAULKNER: I was driving in my car, which was terrifying. Luckily, it was the only place on the route that I was driving that didn't have any trees or guardrails, and I just kind of drifted across a field. After that one, I stopped driving.

ZOMORODI: This kept happening more and more frequently.

FAULKNER: I was having seizures alone at home. I was having seizures at work. I eventually had to leave that chef job because open flames and sharp knives and seizures are not a great combination. It's devastating to feel so limited in what I can do. It's the idea of hurting someone else if I was driving a car. Like, I don't know how I managed to not hurt anybody. I am haunted by the idea of what could have happened, and I really missed having the freedom to go where I wanted and to go hiking by myself or go to the store by myself or go swimming or take a bubble bath.

ZOMORODI: But in 2023, Kate's neurologist had a new idea - to surgically implant a vagus nerve stimulation device.

FAULKNER: Which is a battery that goes in your chest on the left side, just underneath the skin, and it's connected to a wire that wraps around the vagus nerve, which is part of the parasympathetic nerve system. And the battery is programmed by the neurologist to emit small electrical pulses. It sends an extra burst of electricity into the brain and can increase blood flow to certain areas of the brain and can prevent seizures from happening. And right now, my battery is programmed to send a pulse every five minutes for a 30-second interval.

And a - the interesting side effect is that whenever the electrical pulse goes off, the - there it goes. So yeah. So as you can hear happening right now, the battery is going off. The vagus nerve also works around your vocal cords. And so your voice goes a little strange. It's not painful at all. I remember for the first couple weeks, it felt like it was really hard to catch my breath. Even though I was breathing normally and breathing fine, it's kind of that same feeling. So that was hard to get used to. And after 30 seconds, then it goes away and it's - my voice goes back to normal.

ZOMORODI: It's not a cure for epilepsy, and it's not effective for everyone. But for Kate...

FAULKNER: I haven't had a seizure since I got the device put in. I now have control, to some extent, over a part of my brain that I didn't have before. The possibility of the freedom that this could potentially bring, like I might be able to start titrating off the epilepsy drugs that I'm on, which those have some not fun side effects. And I want to be able to go through a day without having the intrusive thought of I'm carrying a 40-gallon pot of hot soup and thinking on today's episode of "Bad Times To Have Seizures." It'd be wonderful to have that kind of freedom. I mean, it's an incredible piece of technology, and I'm - even though I have a weird voice now, it's - I'm optimistic that this will make life easier and open up possibilities.

ZOMORODI: That's Kate Faulkner. We are so grateful to her for telling her story. And you can learn more about her condition and treatment at ted.npr.org.

Thank you so much for listening to our show, brain hacks. This episode was produced by Rachel Faulkner White, Katie Monteleone and Fiona Geiran. It was edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour, James Delahoussaye and me. Our production staff at NPR also includes Matthew Cloutier and Harsha Nahata. Irene Noguchi is our executive producer. Our audio engineers were Robert Rodriguez, Margaret Luthar and Ted Mebane. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Michelle Quint, Alejandra Salazar and Daniella Balarezo. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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