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Pedro Irazoqui

Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering

People with epilepsy find hope in new treatments approach

Epilepsy strikes with little or no warning, as neurons in the brain begin firing in a synchronized chaos that renders its victims helpless.

You know Pedro Irazoqui is sincere when he says, "If I am able to help one child who suffers from epilepsy, my career will have been a success."

He has been motivated largely by the impassioned pleas of parents whose children are stricken with the disease. Parents like Jeanne Donalty of Utica, N.Y., who knows well the horrors of epilepsy: Her son Christopher died in 2002.

Donalty is a member of the Chicago-based Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy, known as CURE, which has funded Irazoqui's work in the past.

"The mortality rate from epilepsy is staggering — higher than breast cancer — and yet we never hear about it," says Irazoqui (pronounced Ear-Ah-Tho-Kee). "Every five minutes a child in the United States is diagnosed with epilepsy, and every time someone has a traumatic brain injury there is a 25 percent chance they will develop epilepsy."

The need for better treatments is underscored by the sheer number of epilepsy sufferers, many of whom desperately seek new therapies, he says.

"In a room of a hundred people, one person has epilepsy, which means that everyone knows someone with epilepsy, even if they're not aware of it. At the same time, 30 to 40 percent of patients don't respond to anti-epileptic drugs. For these patients, there is virtually no treatment. For the rest, side-effects are so severe that the cure can be worse than the disease."

Irazoqui is working with doctoral students and other researchers at Purdue's Center for Implantable Devices to create a technology that simultaneously monitors brain activity, detects or predicts the onset of a seizure and then stimulates the brain with electrical impulses that stop or prevent the seizure.

The center has already developed devices powered with wireless technologies to enable an entirely new class of medical implant, with miniaturization being a key aspect of the work.

Experimental electronic implants created so far have been too large to be effective because they damage brain tissues and cause scaring that surrounds the devices and prevents them from working properly.

These new devices are extremely slim however, eliminating the problem of scaring, and requiring no batteries — a critical design feature.

"Our approach uses between a hundred and a million times less power than any approach that has ever been developed and published in the literature," Irazoqui says. "That's how we avoid using a battery."

Instead, the new chip harvests ambient electromagnetic energy from the environment, tapping into the ubiquitous energy from wireless communications like cell phone networks.

Says Irazoqui, “The hope is that by perfecting this new class of ultra-miniature, low-power implants, we will be able to virtually cure epilepsy one day.”

Photos by: Andrew Hancock