Epileptic seizures can erupt when neurons fire excessively in a sudden burst of energy in the brain. It is not unlike what happens in earthquakes, where shifting tectonic plates send waves of energy through the crust. The similarity, scientists now say, is more than metaphor: Techniques developed for predicting earthquakes may someday be used to warn patients that a brain seizure is on the way.
The insight comes from Ivan Osorio, a neurologist at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, who realized that both systems involve what he calls “relaxation phenomena,” in which energy accumulated over a long period of time is discharged. Working with a team of mathematicians and physicists, Osorio compared the timing and strength of epileptic seizures with equivalent measurements of earthquakes in Southern California. The researchers showed that epileptic seizures obeyed the Gutenberg-Richter law, which establishes the relationship between the amplitude of an earthquake on the Richter scale and the number of smaller quakes to follow. Seizures also followed Omori’s law, which predicts the frequency of an earthquake’s aftershocks.
Discovery of those relationships means that advances in earthquake prediction may one day trickle down to the arena of seizure prediction and, ultimately, even prevention. Researchers like Dante Chialvo, professor of physiology at Northwestern University in Chicago, caution that forecasting seizures may be years away and will be limited by the same major problem dogging earthquake prediction: figuring out exactly when the initial quake will strike. Even so, Chialvo says, this new model of epilepsy could spawn improved seizure forecasting technologies, which would open many doors for treating the disorder.