Virginia Tech leads study into brain trauma, epilepsy connection

BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech has been given the opportunity to lead a $2.6 million study funded by the nonprofit Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy (CURE) and U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).

The study, which will be three years long, seeks to identify the root causes behind why a person may develop epilepsy after he or she has suffered brain trauma, including sports-related concussion and focal contusion injuries, according to Virginia Tech.

The five Virginia Tech groups that will be helping with the study are The School of Neuroscience, part of the College of Science, the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (VTCRI), the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine and the University’s College of Engineering.

“These are the type of injuries you get falling off a skateboard or playing contact sports,” said Harald Sontheimer, executive director of the School of Neuroscience and the I.D. Wilson Chair in the College of Science. Sontheimer is also director of VTCRI’s Center for Glial Biology in Health Disease and Cancer and has a career-long interest in epilepsy. “The unique aspect of the research is that we are specifically examining which form of injury causes epilepsy and whether there are predictive biomarkers to tell who will or will not develop epilepsy as a result of injury,” added Sontheimer.

According to Virginia Tech, an estimated 4 million people suffer head injuries annually, many of them related to professional sports, recreation, or vehicular accidents. A significant number of people who suffer traumatic brain injuries will develop epilepsy, a chronic disorder marked by recurrent, unprovoked seizures.

Another astonishing fact from the group CURE says that 65 million people suffer from epilepsy worldwide. They also said that 1 in 26 people developing the illness in their lifetime.

CURE added the though epilepsy is often considered a genetic illness, more than half of all cases of epilepsy are the result of trauma to the head, by far the leading cause of the disorder.

“For over one-third of the affected patients, no effective treatment can be found, leaving them disabled for life, often unable to live independently and participate in the workforce,” CURE said.

The reason for the Department of Defense’s involvement is because of its curiosity in how the research can help the roughly 80 percent of injured veterans returning from recent wars have suffered a traumatic head injury, and even personnel who return seemingly uninjured often develop depression, anxiety, and epileptic seizures months or years after their return, according to Virginia Tech.

Learn more about the study here.