“Silent seizures” may be connected to Alzheimer’s disease

The discovery was made by a UMN researcher and others, and could lead to greater breakthroughs in Alzheimer’s treatments.

Mohamed Ibrahim

The University of Minnesota is sponsoring a clinical trial of an anti-seizure medication after research by a University professor showed a link between some seizures and Alzheimer’s disease.

Keith Vossel, a University professor in neurology, led a research effort that found that 42 percent of Alzheimer’s disease patients were experiencing epileptic brain activity while they slept.

Working with researchers at University of California San Francisco, he discovered these “silent seizures” also led to a faster mental decline for patients, relative to patients who did not experience these episodes.

“That was kind of surprising, because the field of Alzheimer’s research doesn’t really discuss or pay attention to seizures,” Vossel said.

The trial began at UCSF, but transferred to the University and began taking on participants last fall. The most recent participant was enrolled about two weeks ago, according to Kasey Ah Pook, a clinical research coordinator working with Vossel.

“Our hope is that if these participants do have these silent seizures along with their Alzheimer’s disease, that throughout the course of this trial, when they’re taking medication, these silent seizures disappear,” Ah Pook said.

The inspiration for the trial came from a similar study involving mice at UCSF, according to Vossel. When the results showed promise, he began to think about its possibilities for the human population.

“We’re using some innovative cognitive tests that haven’t been tested before in clinical trials,” Vossel said. “If there are promising results, we can select the best tests that we ran for larger-scale studies.”

Researchers on the trial will administer anti-seizure medication to Alzheimer’s patients between the ages of 45 and 80 over a 12-week period. With the assistance of Fairview Sleep Center in Edina their brain activity is then monitored while they sleep.

“Hospitals are fine, but it’s not as conducive to natural sleeping like we are in the sleep laboratory,” said Michael Howell, medical director of the sleep center. “Our whole goal is to try to get you to sleep as naturally as possible – at least as possible as you can be, being hooked up to all these wires.”

Howell said he is excited by discovering the connection between seizure activity and Alzheimer’s, which could lead to further breakthroughs. The trial may prove to be a starting point in developing future treatments to slow the disease’s progression, he said. It is currently expected to be completed by early 2020.

“This is a potential game changer in that if we can identify that subtle seizures are contributing in some way to Alzheimer’s disease, this is an avenue where we can pursue treatment,” Howell said. “We know how to stop seizures, [but] we don’t know how to stop Alzheimer’s disease.”