• By Dana Sparks

Science Saturday: Brainstorming on epilepsy

November 3, 2018

Epilepsy strikes without warning, when an electrical storm sweeps across the brain. Storm-chasing teams of researchers have adopted computational techniques to pinpoint and predict seizure activity.  

medical illustration or graphic of a brain having a seizure representing epilepsy

Where exactly does a seizure originate? How can the onset of a seizure be predicted? The emerging answers to these mysteries have two things in common: epilepsy, one of the most common neurological disorders, and Brent Berry, M.D., Ph.D.

Now a resident in neurology, Dr. Berry ultimately wants to develop the next generation of therapies for brain disorders — implantable devices that monitor and intelligently administer neuromodulation (electrical stimulation that alters nerve activity) as therapy for hard-to-treat neurological conditions. He focuses on epilepsy but sees potential to improve outcomes for patients with other neurological and psychiatric disorders.

After majoring in biochemistry, Berry was accepted into Mayo Clinic School of Medicine, where he developed an interest in epilepsy.

“I was fascinated with how epilepsy works and how debilitating it is,” Dr. Berry says. “There’s a lot we don’t understand about epilepsy. It’s a big frontier.”

To chart that frontier, Dr. Berry put his residency on hold after completing medical school to pursue a doctorate in biomedical engineering and physiology at Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. He studied the brain’s intricate electrical circuitry and the faulty processes that produce seizures. He learned how to use sensors to measure the brain’s electrophysiological activity and higher math in tandem with software to analyze and model brain function. Most of all, Dr. Berry learned teamwork is the quickest route to medical advances.

Brainstorming for Medical Advances
“The nature of science is turning more collaborative,” Dr. Berry says. “No one person or lab can have all the skills needed to solve the big challenges in neuroscience. It’s going to take the combined resources of universities, labs and companies to make breakthroughs.”

Dr. Berry chose to work in Mayo Systems Electrophysiology Lab, which studies how the brain works and how it goes wrong. As his mentor, he chose Gregory Worrell, M.D., Ph.D., a neurologist specializing in epilepsy and the lab’s co-leader.

“Here at Mayo, research is a team sport,” Dr. Worrell says. “Brent’s nature is to be collaborative and interactive, so he was involved in a large number of projects.”

Each of Dr. Berry’s main projects has its own roster of specialized clinicians and researchers from Mayo Clinic and other organizations. Driven by team spirit, Dr. Berry has contributed to about 25 publications and patents during his young career as a physician-scientist.

When Brain Meets Machine
The possibilities of a brain-machine interface fascinate Dr. Berry.

“There’s been a great deal of progress over the past 10 years in artificial intelligence — making control systems that think for themselves, like self-driving cars,” he says. “There are so many new tools that are being applied to neuroscience. It’s the right time to be a scientist researching in this field.” Read the rest of the article on Discovery's Edge.

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