Lehigh University
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Approaching Epilepsy Like an Electrical Engineer

Yevgeny Berdichevsky, an assistant professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering, has been awarded a one-year, $100,000 Taking Flight award to support his research into abnormal neural circuitry—a potential cause of epilepsy.

The award is given by CURE, Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy, a 15-year-old organization that has raised more than $26 million to “lead the way to a cure for the epilepsies.” CURE uses an advisory board of more than 300 scientists to review and fund the most promising, cutting-edge projects.

Berdichevsky is the director of Lehigh’s Neural Engineering Lab, where students join him in studying neurobiology from an engineering perspective. Berdichevsky develops brain tissue cultures that are compatible with microfluidic and microelectrode devices and, using a combination of engineering and molecular approaches, studies the abnormal functions that result in epileptic seizures.

“For decades, researchers believed that epilepsy was somehow connected to imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain,” said Berdichevsky. “As I put aside engineering for a time to learn more about the medical side of things, I began to realize that epilepsy may not just be connected to neurotransmitter levels, but rather a disorder of the neuro-circuitry itself.”

This is a relatively new notion in the field of epilepsy. The long history of medical research in this arena has focused on the idea that chemical imbalances in the brain are the cause. In recent years, however, studies have consistently determined that differences between healthy and epileptic brains may go beyond chemical transmitters..
Berdichevksy embarked upon his own research direction, looking into how an epileptic seizure begins. (A second aspect of his work is seeking a better understanding of the fundamental mechanisms of why seizures even happen.)

Berdichevsky’s team uses minute slices of the hippocampus—the part of the brain most commonly linked to diseases like epilepsy and Alzheimer’s. By keeping the slices alive in an incubator and monitoring electric currents through their some 10,000 neurons, the team can see the evolution of epileptic activity. After about a month inside an incubator, the team has a simple model for the development of epilepsy, which allows them to address a host of unanswered questions, most notably, can science intervene in epilepsy either chemically, electrically or pharmaceutically?

“We now believe that some of the neural connections are, to put things simply, incorrect,” said Berdichevsky. “That leads to what electrical engineers call a positive feedback loops that cause seizures—a small disturbance that builds into a systemic, electrical storm.”

Berdichevsky’s goal is to identify the precise roles that signaling molecules used by cells to regulate growth and response to injury play in the development of epilepsy. Eventually, he hopes to design and optimize antiepileptic treatments that inhibit multiple branches of brain signaling simultaneously and use bioengineering methods to identify other areas of neuro-circuitry that are involved in epileptogenesis and that may be effective places to target with drugs in the future. Ultimately, the goal is to find the right combination of brain pathways that could be completely knocked out, resulting in complete prevention of epilepsy with minimal side effects.

CURE is run by founder Susan Axelrod, who has brought increased attention to epilepsy and the devastation it can bring to individuals and families. The wife of former Barack Obama campaign manager David Axelrod, she has raised awareness and funds by appearing on the Today Show, MSNBC and CNN.

Berdichevsky received his Ph.D. from the University of California, San Diego in Electrical and Computer Engineering in 2006. He undertook a postdoctoral fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School's Center for Engineering in Medicine and Department of Neurology.  He joined Lehigh University in 2012. 

Story by Jordan Reese

Posted on Monday, April 15, 2013

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