RESEARCH SPOTLIGHT: IBBME students place with Epilepsy research

image of mirna guirgis at competition

The epileptic brain was the subject that earned Marija Cotic and Mirna Guirgis – two PhD candidates supervised by Professor Berj Bardakjian and cross-appointed faculty Professor Peter Carlen – finalist placements at IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) conferences in recent months. The research aims to help neurologists locate more precisely the areas of the brain affected by seizures in patients who do not respond to drug therapies.

image of Marjia CoticCotic placed 3rd at the 6th Annual International IEEE EMBS Conference on Neural Engineering in San Diego, California this past November 6-8.

“This is exciting,” claimed PhD candidate Marija Cotic, “because I’m at the end of my thesis now, and this placement is a confirmation of my work. It’s nice to have it recognized like that.”

Like Guirgis, Cotic’s research focused on targeting more precisely the areas of the brain affected by seizures in epileptic patients.

“[In advance of surgery on epileptic patients] neurologists determine where seizures are coming from through visually-based EEG analysis,” Cotic explained. “We apply different algorithms to identify the seizure zone in a different way. We look at frequencies in the brain that we think are biomarkers, and when we compared these findings to the neurologists we found a great deal of similarity.”

Guirgis, on the other hand, was one of 15 finalists at the IEEE EMBS conference this past July in Osaka, Japan which boasted upwards of 3,000 registrants.

“The idea is to see how different neural rhythm interactions help us characterize seizures in both space and time,” said the third-year doctoral candidate. Guirgis’s research concluded that lower frequencies in the brain actually modulate the higher frequencies, “and the interaction between the two helps us identify when seizures are happening,” allowing surgeons a more precise field for operating on the epileptic brain.

But she also looked at the seizures in space. Sixty-four electrodes arrayed in a grid were implanted upon the cortex of patients, allowing Guirgis to apply her algorithm to see exactly where the seizures spread through the grid.

The more precisely surgeons can define the areas of the brain affected by epileptic seizures, the better the outcomes will be in those patients who undergo corrective surgeries.

Interestingly, just as the two researchers share joint supervisors, both relied upon a data set gained through a collaboration with Dr. Yotin Chinvarun, a neurologist at Pramongkutklao Royal Army Hospital and Medical College. As Cotic explained, “we needed data collected in a certain manner which is not standard practice here.”

Professor Bardakjian is proud of his students’ successes. “Marija is a team player who can effectively interact and work with others,” he said. “Her research work demonstrated her diligence, persistence and keen grasp of the research. Mirna has [also] impressed me with her insights and genuine dedication to scientific research. She poses the right questions and proceeds logically to find answers, is analytically-minded, hard working and persistent in pursuing her goals, and has a pleasant personality and a genuine curiosity which fosters positive thinking in her and in those who interact with her.”

Cotic and Guirgis plan to complete their studies shortly and hope to move into research and development roles.


Images: top: Mirna Guirgis (courtesy IEEE EMBS); bottom: Marija Cotic (courtesy M. Cotic).