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Epilepsy in cell cultures

What sets off an epileptic seizure in the brain? The Biomicrotechnology Laboratory of the University of Freiburg is conducting in vitro studies that combine technology and biology to find an answer.

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mage of a brain on an electrode array: The scientists stimulate various areas and measure how the nerve cells react (Caption: University of Freiburg)

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An epileptic seizure is the endpoint of a long chain of events in the brain, and Prof. Dr. Ulrich Egert wants to find out how and why this chain is triggered. He and his team at the Biomicrotechnology Laboratory of the Department of Microsystems Engineering (IMTEK) of the University of Freiburg are observing and activating nerve networks in cell cultures. The goal is to influence the networks to engage in certain activities or to keep them in a certain state so that they do not trigger an epileptic seizure.

  • Network of nerve cells on microelectrode arrays

“We are conducting in vitro studies in our lab. It is not possible to conduct them on humans,” explains Egert. “However, the events we are observing in the cell culture are an abstraction of mechanisms in the brain and follow the same principles.” The experiments involve creating a network of nerve cells on microelectrode arrays to serve as a model for processes in the brain. Microelectrode arrays are special chips with a multitude of electrodes and a specially coated surface which is conducive o the growth of nerve cells.

  • Studying and Controlling Transitional Processes

This research method enables Egert to observe in great detail the chain of events that leads these networks into various states of activity. Medical researchers, on the other hand, only see the end of this chain: the seizure itself. This is not enough if one wants to understand the causes of any neurological disorder – not just epilepsy. The mechanisms active in the brain during a seizure are different from those that take place beforehand. The critical moment in the chain of events is the transitional process leading up to a seizure. The scientist and his team are investigating these transitional processes and trying to find ways to control them. For his research in the neurosciences the 51-year-old is contributing to the development and optimization of new microelectrode arrays. His area of specialization constitutes a critical interface between the disciplines of biology, medicine, and engineering.

  • Autonomous Implants Prevent Seizures

Egert is collaborating with his colleagues at the Faculty of Engineering on the development of new tools to make his research more effective. He also cooperates closely with engineers and medical researchers at the Bernstein Center Freiburg and the proposed Cluster of Excellence “BrainLinks – BrainTools.” The latter institution aims to develop brain implants that react and replenish their energy supply autonomously for patients suffering from neurological disorders like epilepsy.

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Prof. Dr. Ulrich Egert
Although he is employed by IMTEK, he is not a Microsystems engineer: He earned his doctorate and habilitation in biology on the subject of "Development of thin-film microelectrode arrays and their application in neurophysiology". Since 2008 Egert is professor of Biomicrotechnology of the Department of Microsystems Engineering (IMTEK) of the University of Freiburg. With his research Egert connects the disciplines of biology, medicine, and engineering. 

 

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