A team of Waterford-based researchers is leading a new EU-funded project that aims to treat and suppress seizures using a brain implant.

The Prime project team is based at Waterford Institute of Technology’s Telecommunications Software & Systems Group (TSSG) and has been awarded €4.4m under the EU’s Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) programme to develop the implant.

The researchers aim to develop an innovative diagnostic-therapeutic treatment for people with epilepsy and other neurological conditions, implanting engineered biological cells in the brain that will act as biocomputers to treat and suppress impending seizures.

The team is made up of Dr Sasitharan Balasubramaniam, Dr Deirdre Kilbane, Frances Cleary and Dr Hamdan Awan, along with consortium members. The funding will allow them to build on their expertise in molecular communications and computing by applying it to future generation bioimplants.

If the treatment is able to suppress chronic and recurring seizures, it could allow people with epilepsy to perform jobs that some are currently restricted from doing, such as operating machinery, driving a car, or working near open water or at heights.

While previous implanted devices in drug-resistant epilepsy patients offered ways to interrupt seizures only after they began, this treatment holds the potential to intervene in advance, to the point where patients wouldn’t even know they were in danger of having a seizure.

‘A transformative new technology’

The four-year project will build on the significant breakthrough made by FutureNeuro collaborators Prof Jochen Prehn and Prof David Henshall, who discovered that increases in transfer RNA (tRNA) fragments precede seizure onset in some patients.

By understanding the role of tRNA in predicting seizure onset, the Waterford-based team will aim to develop a biological brain implant that will detect spikes in tRNA and then respond with a seizure-suppressing treatment.

Henshall, who is director of FutureNeuro, said the Prime project represents “the very best” of FutureNeuro research, developing “what could be a transformative new technology” for better seizure control.

The implanted device won’t have any electronic-based components that require an energy supply, as was often the case with earlier brain implants. The implant could also be personalised using AI to accommodate the different types and levels of seizures experienced by individual epilepsy patients.

Balasubramaniam, director of research in TSSG and Prime project coordinator, said: “The initial focus of the research team will be the detection and treatment of epilepsy, though the project does offer the potential to also treat other neurological disorders, including Parkinson’s disease and also certain types of cancer, going forward.”

Jenny Darmody

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