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A Stethoscope for the Brain: Detecting Seizures Before They Happen

Epilepsy is a brain disorder characterized by sudden, unpredictable seizures. These seizures, while generally short in duration, can lead to brain damage if uncontrolled. Severe cases of the disorder, such as with Dravet syndrome, can cause hundreds of seizures a day and can prove fatal. The exact cause of epilepsy is unknown, although it is possible to develop the condition as the result of drug misuse, brain cancer, stroke and physical brain damage.

The seizures form deep in the brain and are the result of erratic cortical nerve cell activity. A single neuron is incapable of triggering a seizure, a fact that has spurred many researchers to better understand how brain cells interact. An epilepsy diagnosis generally requires ruling out other conditions that can cause seizures such as meningitis and syncope. Doctors can observe seizures in a hospital setting with an electroencephalogram.

There is currently no cure for epilepsy, although available medications control seizures in approximately 70% of affected individuals. When medication isn’t enough, doctors may suggest brain surgery, neurostimulation or dietary changes. Additionally, there is anecdotal evidence that high-CBD cannabis may control seizures. Worldwide, around 1% of the population suffers from epilepsy.

Brainwave Music

After a person experiences their first nonfebrile seizure, doctors typically order a CT scan or MRI in an effort to identify structural abnormalities in the brain. MRI is generally regarded as more accurate than CT. When a bleed in the brain is suspected, however, CT is the test of choice. While these scans allow doctors to see the structure of the brain, an electroencephalogram detects the overall electrical activity. The test is conducted via electrodes that are attached to the scalp, and the output appears on a monitor in the form of a waveform.

Brain-StethoscopeJosef Parvizi, a neurologist at Stanford Medical Center who studies epilepsy, was struck with the inspiration for a new biofeedback device—a sort of stethoscope for the brain—while at a performance by the Kronos Quartet. This insight caused Parvizi to attempt to set the chaotic brain activity of the epileptic brain to music. Teaming up with Chris Chafe, a professor of music, also at Stanford, Parvazi took brain data from a consenting patient and set it to a synthesized voice, with a pitch that changes depending on the amount of energy the neurons are giving off at any given moment.

The two found that setting the brain activity to the human voice gave it an empathic quality, allowing people to interpret it without extensive training. The researchers have also found that the music generated by the brain during a seizure is fundamentally different than the slow, controlled tones generated by the healthy brain.

The Brain Stethoscope

Currently, the pair’s brain stethoscope requires the patient to be fitted with around 100 deep-brain electrodes, but the researchers hope that the technology will soon advance to the point where scalp electrodes will be all that’s required. The “music” created by various regions of the healthy brain are largely synchronized. Yet in the minutes before a seizure, the harmony fades and gives way to chaotic, mournful singing.

The Stanford researchers hope that the invention will allow nurses and doctors to detect oncoming seizures from anywhere in a home or hospital. While canines can be trained to detect seizures early through subtle behavioral cues, Parvizi’s invention will likely prove more reliable. The work is currently in the early experimental phases.

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