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Unlocking Epilepsy: Reframing the Question

By Shlomo Maital

   At Davin School, in Regina, Saskatchewan (Canada), an elementary school, I had a classmate who had epilepsy. From time to time he would have a seizure. Everyone knew what to do – put a pencil between his teeth (to keep him from biting his tongue or swallowing it), and bring him to the Principal’s Office, where he could lie on a couch and sleep. I don’t know how he fared as an adult – but here is what Wikipedia tells us about epilepsy worldwide:

   As of 2015 about 39 million people have epilepsy.   Nearly 80% of cases occur in the developing world. In 2015 it resulted in 125,000 deaths up from 112,000 deaths in 1990.     Epilepsy is more common in older people. About 5–10% of people will have an unprovoked seizure by the age of 80, and the chance of experiencing a second seizure is between 40 and 50%.

What causes epilepsy?   A lot of research has been done, to answer this question, without definitive results. Sometimes, to crack a problem, you have to reframe the question. This is what a research team at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, led by Prof. Hermona Soreq, has done. Her team included researchers from Ben Gurion University and Dalhousie University, in Canada.   Soreq asked instead, why don’t more people have epilepsy? What actually prevents it?  

   I recalled that the discovery of an anti-Multiple Sclerosis drug, Copaxone, at Israel’s Weizmann Institute, results from similar reframing – how can we induce MS (to study it, in mice), rather how can we cure it?

Soreq’s team used rats, genetically engineered to over-produce a protein, micro RNA 211, that they suspected helped protect the brain from epilepsy. These mice were then given a chemical that lowers the concentration of this protein. Lo and behold, the mice developed epileptic tendencies.

Soreq observes:  “We tend to research what causes disease and how to prevent it. We don’t ask why most people don’t get sick, though we should.  Instead of finding medicines to cure conditions, it would be better to find what protects healthy brains.”

   The results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The hope is, discovery of the role of microRNA 211 will lead to new treatments for epilepsy.



Profiles in Courage: How Kyla Montgomery Outruns MS

By Shlomo  Maital       


Kyla Montgomery

  Meet Kyla Montgomery.   She is one of America’s leading high school athletes in the mile race, a very difficult race that today is run almost at a sprint, for the whole four minute plus distance. 

    Kyla is a profile in courage.  Three years ago, she was disgnosed with MS, multiple sclerosis, a disease in which the insulating covers of the nerve cells are damaged, making it hard for the nerves to send messages to the brain.   It is a debilitating disease, that can be treated but as yet not cured. 

   Strangely, according to today’s New York Times (“Challenge like no other for runner with MS”,  March 5),    Kyla’s MS affliction gives her an advantage.  She cannot feel the pain in her legs when she runs, and when you run the mile, the pain is quite severe, because it is a race that creates an oxygen debt in the muscles and naturally, they complain. But Kyla’s brain can’t hear the complaints from her leg muscles, because the nerves don’t transmit it.  (The U.S. women’s high school record for the mile was recently broken, at 4:32! by a 16-year-old). 

   But there is a disadvantage too.  She cannot stop.  When she stops, at the end of the race, she collapses, as her legs simply give out. Her coach has to catch her and carry her.  If she stumbles within the race, as she once did, she has trouble getting up. (She once crawled to a fence, pulled herself up to her feet – and dashed ahead, finishing 10th!).    In one race, when officials forgot they had to catch her, she collapsed after finishing, right onto her face.   Some ignorant people in the audience called her a ‘wimp’.   She is quite the opposite.

    When Kyla was diagnosed with MS, she told her coach that “I don’t know how much time I have left (to run, after being diagnosed with MS), so I want to run fast – don’t hold back!”.  She improved her time from 24:29 for five kilometers, to 17:22 (yes, that’s just over 3 minutes per kilometer…).   

    Kyla was rejected by many universities’ sports programs. But finally, Lipscomb University in Tennessee saw the light. She won an athletic scholarship there, and will run for them.   We wish her luck.  

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital