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‘Slow’ brain waves could guard against brain excitability in people with epilepsy

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Mandy Ryan

‘Slow’ brain waves could guard against brain excitability in people with epilepsy

New research has revealed that slow brain waves, which usually occur during sleep, could also offer protection against increased brain excitability in people with epilepsy.

Researchers from University College London (UCL) found that these slow waves can also be present during wakefulness in people with epilepsy. The UCL team hope that the study, published in Nature Communications, may pave the way for future research and the development of new treatments to help people with the condition.

Our Medical Director, Professor Ley Sander, has welcomed the research, saying that it underlines the value of discussing sleep hygiene in routine clinical appointments.

As part of the study, the research team examined electroencephalogram (EEG) scans from electrodes in the brains of 25 patients with focal epilepsy, while they carried out a memory task that involved grouping images together. 

The EEG data revealed that the brains of participants were producing slow waves while they were awake and taking part in the tasks. When they occurred in patients who were awake, the slow waves increased in line with increases in brain excitability and lowered the impact of epileptic spikes on brain activity.

a person sleeping

The study separately explored whether the slow brain waves affected cognitive performance. It discovered that the reduced nerve cell activity brought about by slow waves meant that patients needed longer to complete the memory task.

Lead author, Dr. Laurent Sheybani (UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology), said: “The parallel between the function of slow waves during sleep and, here, their beneficial impact in a pathological condition, is particularly interesting.

“Our study suggests that a naturally occurring activity is employed by the brain to offset pathological activities; however, this comes with a price, since ‘wake’ slow waves are shown to impact on memory performance.

“From a purely neurobiological perspective, the research also reinforces the idea that sleep activity can happen in specific areas of the brain, rather than occurring evenly throughout the brain.”

Professor Ley Sander, Medical Director at the Epilepsy Society, said: "Regular and refreshing sleep is an important part of healthy life and more importantly part of a healthy brain. Sleep hygiene issues are often neglected in epilepsy management and this study shows how important this is, and we should always include sleep issues in our discussions with people with epilepsy we look after.”


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