The human brain is the most complex computer that ever existed. It is made up of some 100 billion neurons, each of which has from 1,000 to 10,000 synapses, resulting in about 125 trillion synapses in the cerebral cortex alone.
But the same complexity that makes the human brain so powerful also leaves it vulnerable to extreme disruption. The brain has billions of electrical impulses taking place every millisecond, says K.J. Oommen, M.D., a neurologist for Covenant Health System, Lubbock, Texas. “How they communicate and transmit from one neuron to another is astonishing. However, if there is even a slight interruption or aberration in this activity, a seizure can occur, leaving a human being helpless, at its worst, often like a fish out of water,” Oommen says.
Brain malfunctions such as seizures can be treated with medicines, medical devices or surgery. Oommen has worked on protocols related to the clinical trials of medicines to treat seizures and has been an investigator on a majority of the new medicines in this area that made it to market in the last 25 years.
Despite these efforts, there have been no reliable detection devices to warn sufferers of an impending seizure. But Oommen has been working on designing a proactive detection system that provides a warning through detection of changes in cerebral blood flow that occur at the time of an impending seizure.
His goal is to give seizure patients an audible alert that can also be delivered to a family member or designated caregiver who can locate the person and administer treatment. The idea is to have the patient wear a hat or fanny pack with a device that can identify the cerebral blood flow changes sensed by specially implanted sensors over the brain’s coverings, and then transmit the alert. Such a device would be particularly relevant in situations when the patient is out — for instance, on a hike or driving.
If Oommen’s system proves to be successful at detecting seizures before they occur, it would be a huge breakthrough for patients with seizures not just medically, but psychosocially as well. “One of the most common complaints I hear from patients is the way their seizures impact other areas of their lives,” says Sarah Page, D.O., a family practice physician with Kaiser Permanente. Seizures make it more challenging for someone to live alone, get a driver’s license, work and travel,” Page says.
Oommen’s work has advanced through several screening stages as part of a review at the Innovation Institute in Southern California, including an evaluation by Cleveland Clinic Innovations, the alliance partner of the Innovation Lab, part of the institute.
Joe Randolph is president and CEO of the Innovation Institute in La Palma, Calif. Read a Q&A with Randolph for more on the institute’s work and mission.