Why do we hear so little about epilepsy? It has existed as long as human beings and yet it continues to be something we hear very little about. We can all name famous people who have talked about having cancer and others who have talked about their mental health but how many celebrities discuss their seizures? Epilepsy is far more common than you would think and it is still a challenging condition to treat. In the brain, nerve cells generate rhythmic activity or ‘brain waves’. In many neurological diseases these rhythms are disrupted, producing abnormal patterns of activity. In epilepsy, abnormal activity can often be localised to a small ‘focus’, which then spreads causing a seizure. Epilepsy affects 600,000 people in the UK and uncontrolled seizures have devastating effects on patients’ lives. Nearly a third of cases fail to respond to conventional drug treatments and may require surgical removal of the focus. However, surgery may not be suitable for all patients due to irreversible damage to necessary brain functions.

CANDO is a pioneering research project that aims to help those with one of the most challenging forms of epilepsy; focal epilepsy. We have already held a number of public engagement events which were an opportunity for patients and members of the public to discuss this pioneering research project  and there will be more events in the Autumn.

CANDO (Controlling Abnormal Network Dynamics using Optogenetics) is a world-class cross-disciplinary project to develop a cortical implant for optogenetic neural control. The goal is to create a first-in-human trial in patients with focal epilepsy.  This seven year,  £10M Innovative Engineering for Health Award, funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) involves a team of over 30 neuroscientists, engineers and clinicians based at Newcastle University, Imperial College London, University College London and The Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

This project, led by Professor Andrew Jackson and Professor Anthony O’Neill, proposes an alternative treatment using a small implant to modulate abnormal activity and so prevent seizure development. The implant provides precisely timed stimulation by continuously monitoring brain waves via implanted electrodes and modifying them via implanted light sources. This requires that some cells within the focus are genetically altered using a safe virus to make them sensitive to light. 

As part of the CANDO project, Operating Theatre is producing a number of pieces of drama exploring the ethical issues involved. A piece about epilepsy through history,  ‘Illuminating The Self,’ was performed at the launch of the project in Spring last year. In Autumn,  Making for the Light, explored the life and thoughts of a woman artist with epilepsy considering a brain implant to deal with her condition. There were further performances of Operating Theatre’s piece in a number of churches around the region in May.

Our new piece Deep Mind and the Great Puzzle will be at Alphabetti Theatre in March 2020. Details here