Purple Day: Meet U of T students researching new ways to understand epilepsy

From left, IBBME PhD students Chaim Katz, Kramay Patel and Sara Mahallati are members of Dr. Taufik A. Valiante’s Neuron to Brain lab at the Toronto Western Hospital. The multidisciplinary team conducts research on brain activity and behaviour to improve quality of life for individuals with epilepsy. (Photo: Luke Ng / University of Toronto).

March 26, 2018 | By Luke Ng

Each day in Canada, an average of 42 people learn that they have epilepsy. The majority of new patients are young children and senior citizens.

The cause of this neurological disorder is unknown for more than half of identified cases. Long-term drug therapy is the predominant form of treatment, but do not provide a cure and can have undesirable side effects, from nausea to severe liver complications.

In recognition of Purple Day, an international grassroots effort to increases awareness about epilepsy around the world, several U of T students in the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering (IBBME) share their research efforts to develop better treatments and improve the quality of life for individuals facing the neurological disease.

Azin Ebrahim Amini — Understanding potassium levels to enhance brain treatments

IBBME MASc student Azin Ebrahim Amini works with Dr. Peter Carlen at the Toronto Western Hospital’s Krembil Research Institute to see how a novel light-exposure technique might reduce potassium levels in the brain, which is one of the causes for epileptic seizures. (Photo: Luke Ng / University of Toronto)

Azin Ebrahim Amini is working with Dr. Peter Carlen, a neurologist at the Toronto Western Hospital and senior scientist at the Krembil Research Institute, to examine at a known contributor of epileptic seizures in the brain.

“I am investigating the role of potassium concentration and how it starts and maintains seizures in the largest part of the brain,” said Ebrahim Amini.

One of Ebrahim Amini’s research techniques involves the use of a novel experimental platform that allows her to record neural activity and potassium concentrations simultaneously from the same location in the brain.

Her methodology combines the use of specifically manufactured electrodes to view potassium distribution over the neocortex and the exposure of green light on genetically modified glial cells, a support cell found in the nervous system. The light causes the cells to open membrane channels to take in potassium and thereby reduce its concentration in the brain. This action could have major effects on several brain processes, including epilepsy.

“My project attempts to add insight into the understanding of potassium distribution over large areas in the brain,” said Ebrahim Amini. “I hope that my research will contribute to how we might control its concentration, lending to more effective approaches and medications for epilepsy.”

Vasily Grigorovsky — Determining seizure duration and termination mechanisms to prevent and treat epilepsy

IBBME PhD candidate Vasily Grigorovsky, at left, uses computer models to investigate neurological mechanisms behind epileptic seizures. Led by Professor Berj Bardakjian, second from right, and working closely with graduate students Vanessa Breton (second from left) and Helena Liu (right), this team is attempting to identify better treatment options for patients with epilepsy. (Photo: Luke Ng / University of Toronto)

Vasily Grigorovsky studies the neurological mechanisms that determine the duration and termination of epileptic seizures.

“Understanding how long a seizure lasts and when it stops can help us identify targets for prevention and treatment of certain types of epilepsy that might not respond well to current drugs,” said Grigorovsky, a PhD student in Professor Berj Bardakjian’s Neural Systems Lab.

To do this, he is building computer models that investigate the interactions between neurons and glial cells, supportive cells responsible for supplying nutrients to neurons in our central nervous system.

“Recent studies have shown that the behaviour of different types of glial cells could play a key role in various brain disorders,” said Grigorovsky. “However, the precise impact they might have still needs to be investigated.”

Grigorovsky considers the opportunity to research in this area to be “full of unique and interesting challenges.”

“My journey towards solving these challenges has proven to be a rewarding experience and I hope to make a meaningful contribution to the understanding of epilepsy.”

Chaim Katz — Improving memory performance in persons with epilepsy

Chaim Katz is looking at ways to advance current treatment techniques to improve memory performance in individuals with epilepsy. (Photo: Luke Ng / University of Toronto)

Chaim Katz is researching ways to address memory loss in individuals with epilepsy. He works closely with doctors, technicians and patients to gather data on a treatment known as deep brain stimulation (DBS), a process by which electrical pulses are delivered to the brain to regulate activity. DBS also holds potential for decreasing the frequency of seizures and advancing therapy to improve memory, which is another area of focus for their lab.

“My work aims to enlighten some of the underlying mechanisms of memory in the human brain,” said Katz, who is completing his PhD under the supervision of Dr. Taufik A. Valiante, a Toronto Western Hospital neurosurgeon and Krembil Research Institute scientist. “I hope that my research can utilize clinically approved stimulation devices to stop seizures, alleviate the cognitive effects of epilepsy and lend insight for memory improvement in patients with other neurodegenerative diseases.”

Katz credits the unique privilege of working with great people at the largest epilepsy monitoring unit in Canada for advancing his own research because of the direct access to clinical data and resources.

“I am fortunate to work in an environment that can incorporate and benefit patients,” said Katz.

Katz and his colleagues’ research will soon be further enhanced by a new centre to be launched at the University Health Network (UHN). Supported by the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Research Fund, and co-directed by Valiante and IBBME professor Milos Popovic, the $16.4-million CenteR for Advancing Neurotechnological Innovation to Application (CRANIA) will enable UHN and U of T researchers to advance therapies to treat patients with diseases such as epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and spinal cord injury.

“I have always been taught to pursue knowledge and make the world a better place,” said Katz. “I hope that my work will help those who need it.”


On Monday, March 26, students and researchers will be hosting a series of Purple Day activities in the atrium of the Toronto Western Hospital from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. All are encouraged to wear purple, try out their Virtual Reality Seizure Experience and participate in the bake sale to raise awareness for epilepsy.