New research points to a genetic route to understanding and treating epilepsy. Timothy Jegla, an assistant professor of biology at Penn State University, has identified an ancient gene family that plays a role in regulating the excitability of nerves within the brain.
"In healthy people, nerves do not fire excessively in response to small stimuli. This function allows us to focus on what really matters. Nerve cells maintain a threshold between rest and excitement, and a stimulus has to cross this threshold to cause the nerve cells to fire," Jegla explained. "However, when this threshold is set too low, neurons can become hyperactive and fire in synchrony. As excessive firing spreads across the brain, the result is an epileptic seizure."
Managing this delicate rest-excitement balance are ion channels -- neuronal "gates" that control the flow of electrical signals between cells. While sodium and calcium channels help to excite neurons, potassium channels help to suppress signaling between cells, increasing the threshold at which nerves fire. However, the genetic mechanisms that control the potassium channels and set this threshold are not fully understood. Jegla's team focused on a particular potassium-channel gene -- called Kv12.2 -- that is active in resting nerve cells and is expressed in brain regions prone to seizure. "We decided that Kv12.2 was a good candidate for study because it is part of an old gene family that has been conserved throughout animal evolution," Jegla said. "This ancient gene family probably first appeared in the genomes of sea-dwelling creatures prior to the Cambrian era about 542-million years ago. It is still with us and doing something very important in present-day animals." Previous studies have suggested that the Kv12.2 potassium channel has a role in spatial memory, but Jegla and his team focused on how it might be related to seizure disorders.
In collaboration with Jeffrey Noebels at Ba
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