Antal Berényi combined a boyhood passion for electronics and years of medical training to build a device that, once implanted under the skin, can detect and stop epileptic attacks just as a defibrillator corrects heart arrhythmia. Like its inventor, the prototype device, which is being readied for trials in the US, has all the makings of a big future.
Antal Berényi left Szeged University in Hungary for the United States with a plan. He wanted to design and build a device to detect and stop epileptic attacks without drugs and without major brain surgery. To the 50 million people worldwide who suffer from epileptic seizures a chronic neurobiological disorder this simple plan could transform their lives.
Working with the renowned scientist Dr György Buzsáki of CMBN Rutgers, State University of New Jersey (US), he not only built the prototype device, but has already proved it works in rats. The next step is a number of preliminary safety experiments to test its therapeutic potential in humans.
EU funding for Dr Berényi's international TSPUMMNRPS project helped him quickly bring the prototype together. Many of the pieces were ordered and manufactured in Hungary, then assembled in the US. The prototype took just half a year to design and construct.
"I think being a trained medical doctor helped me work out what was really needed in terms of the electronics," the researcher suggests, "which sped up the whole design and testing phase."
The novel device detects when an epileptic seizure is coming and applies tiny, on-demand electric pulses which help the brain return to normal functioning. It works in much the same way as an implantable cardiac defibrillator applies shocks automatically to the heart after detecting minor cardiac rhythm disturbances.
"A small circuit is continuously monitoring brain activity and, if it detects a 'failure', transmits a special electric pulse through the brain. As the pulse travels from one temple to the other, it interferes (in a good way) with the areas causing the seizure," Dr Berényi explains.
Less invasive, more cost-effective
In animal tests, the device was implanted under the rat's skin, at the top of the skull. This approach, if validated for human use, would mean less invasive and more cost-effective procedures, lower risks of infection and improved overall outcomes, especially for the 30% of epileptics who cannot be treated with drugs.
The fact that the device can be implanted in a minimally invasive way is "crucial", according to the researcher: "Every medical intervention is judged on a cost-benefit basis. Since this device is implanted on the outer surface of the skull, there is no need to open up the bone during surgery."
This can dramatically reduce complications (infections, intra-cerebral bleeding, etc.) because the brain tissue is not exposed directly to any manipulation, Dr Berényi suggests. "And shorter, less-complex surgeries usually lead to faster post-operative recovery in general," he adds.
Patents have been filed for the TSPUMMNRPS device, and the project's work has gained wider attention following the November publication in Science magazine of the team's findings on 'Closed-loop control of epilepsy by trans-cranial electrical stimulation'.
And commercial interest? "Since the device is in a preclinical experimental stage, there is no industrial demand for it, but once its effectiveness is proved on human patients and approved [by the authorities], hopefully we'll find an industrial partner with vision to take it to the market," notes the researcher.
Now that the 'outgoing' phase of his fellowship is over, Dr Berényi will combine his medical experience and skills gained in the US with his knowledge of electronics and information technology to establish an electrophysiology lab back at Szeged University (HU).
"As a boy, I was so eager to see how things work that I immediately disassembled all my gifts," recalls the young scientist. "Of course, I could never fix them again
Now, either the toys or my skills have improved, but things have clearly changed for the better!"