Husband-Wife Research Team at New York Medical College Unite to Identify New Epilepsy Treatments
“Besides new advances in medicine, improving the lives of patients with epilepsy must come through raising awareness and educating the public with facts,”
Jennifer Riekert, M.B.A.
Vice President of Communications
New York Medical College
MARCH 26 IS WORLDWIDE EPILEPSY AWARENESS DAY
VALHALLA, N.Y., March 25, 2014—Tomorrow—March 26—marks the sixth international Epilepsy Awareness Day, an initiative dedicated to increasing awareness about epilepsy across the globe.
Launched in 2008, the day draws attention to a chronic neurological disease affecting more than 65 million people worldwide, a population larger than the combined number of people with multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and Parkinson’s disease. Yet the general public knows little about epilepsy, and much of the information many believe to be true is incorrect.
Few appreciate this knowledge gap better than Libor Velisek, M.D., Ph.D., professor of cell biology and anatomy, pediatrics and neurology and director of the M.D./Ph.D. Program and the Behavioral Phenotyping Core Facility at New York Medical College (NYMC) in Valhalla in Westchester County, N.Y.
Dr. Velisek, along with his wife, Jana Veliskova, M.D., Ph.D., professor of cell biology and anatomy, obstetrics and gynecology, and neurology at NYMC, have dedicated a major portion of their professional careers to studying epilepsy, improving treatments, and increasing awareness of this largely misunderstood disease.
“Besides new advances in medicine, improving the lives of patients with epilepsy must come through raising awareness and educating the public with facts,” said Dr. Velisek. “Too often, epilepsy is simply something people do not want to talk about. Unlike Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases, epilepsy is still scary to people. A huge stigma continues to loom around it. It is for these, and countless other reasons, that I continue to devote my work to finding ways to treat this disease and to improve the lives of those who suffer from it.”
For more than 20 years, Dr. Velisek’s lab has chiefly focused on research into developmental epilepsy. He and his team have specifically investigated infantile spasms, a devastating seizure syndrome that usually manifests around six months of age.
His lab was the first to establish a model of infantile spasms that can be used for new treatment testing. Dr. Velisek has been most recently concentrating on identifying factors that contribute to spontaneous seizures, including prenatal, chromosome-related changes. Additionally, as director of the Behavioral Phenotyping Core Facility for mice and rats at NYMC, Dr. Velisek and his team have made noteworthy progress on pinpointing the effects of drugs, environmental changes, and genetic factors on epilepsy.
Dr. Veliskova’s investigations aim to chart a course for improved treatments for women with epilepsy. Her research centers upon the effects that sex hormones and epilepsy can have on each other, with an emphasis on differences between males and females. She also explores the protective role that estrogen can play against seizure-induced neuronal damage. Dr. Veliskova and her NYMC research team regularly collaborate with colleagues at institutions in the United States and Europe.
“Although almost fifty percent of individuals with epilepsy are women, concerns regarding specific issues of women with epilepsy are only slowly emerging,” said Dr. Veliskova. “In women with epilepsy, seizures often correlate with hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle, a condition called catamenial epilepsy. That is why it is important to understand the relationship between seizures and ovarian hormones.”
According to Dr. Veliskova, the medical research community has been focusing on increasing attention on post-traumatic epilepsy because of the increased incidence of combat-related traumatic brain injuries arising from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Based on data from the Vietnam war, she said that the estimated incidence of traumatic brain injuries in wounded personnel is 25 percent. Up to half of these brain-injured personnel, Dr. Veliskova said, will develop epilepsy during the next ten to fifteen years.
As described by the Epilepsy Foundation, epilepsy is “a medical condition that produces seizures affecting a variety of mental and physical functions. It is also called a seizure disorder. When a person has two or more unprovoked seizures, they are considered to have epilepsy. A seizure happens when a brief, strong surge of electrical activity affects part or all of the brain.”
There is currently no cure for epilepsy, and roughly half of those with epilepsy cannot control their seizures with medication. Importantly, epilepsy significantly affects the quality of life not only of the patient but also of their families.