When it comes to brain disorders like epilepsy, researchers like neuroscientist Julie Lefebvre are still trying to find a root cause. So they’re going back to the beginning to look for clues in the developing brain.
“We know very little about how the brain works and how it develops,” says Lefebvre. “Our goal is by understanding in much more detail how the brain develops and how these connections are established, we hope that this information will provide the blueprint in order to repair a lot of these disorders.”
Lefebvre, associate professor of molecular genetics at the University of Toronto and researcher at SickKids Hospital, studies the formation of complex patterns and connections in the brain. With over a billion neurons in the human brain, its development is a difficult thing to map. That’s why there are so many hypotheses around why epilepsy arises.
“One idea that we’re suggesting is that in the developing brain, there are not enough of the inhibitory cells that develop properly,” explains Lefebvre. “So sometimes there’s too much excitation, and what happens is that the neural circuits form a short circuit, and then it gives rise to epilepsy.”
If she’s right, it could open new possibilities for treating epilepsy patients by introducing more inhibitory nerve cells to restore normal neural circuits. Nerve cells are highly plastic, says Lefebvre. And that means they can be taken from one location or grown in a dish and placed in the brain where they are needed.
“By providing these inhibitory nerve cells that we think are lost in diseases like epilepsy and autism, by restoring them,” adds Lefebvre, “then this will help bring back the balance into neural circuits, and bring back healthy function of the brain.”