Photo of Neil Fournier in the lab. (Photo courtesy: Maha Elsyed).

U of S psychology graduate advances epilepsy research

Research provides evidence that the brain can generate new cells without having grand mal seizures or sustaining serious brain damage.

University of Saskatchewan psychology graduate Neil Fournier has been awarded a post-doctoral fellowship for brain research that could open up new possibilities for the treatment of epilepsy.

“We know little about why epilepsy develops, and we know less about effectively treating it without negative and sometimes debilitating side effects,” says Fournier’s PhD supervisor U of S psychology professor Lisa Kalynchuk.

Epilepsy affects about one per cent of the population and touches all age groups.

In June, Fournier was awarded the Governor-General’s Gold Medal graduate thesis award for his outstanding academic performance by the U of S College of Graduate Studies and Research. His two-year $80,000 post-doctoral fellowship is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

At one time it was believed that people were born with a fixed set of neurons, but it’s now known that the adult brain has the capacity to regenerate neurons and even create new neurons.

The birth of neurons in the adult brain, known as neurogenesis, can help in recovery after seizures, or can contribute to learning and cognitive impairment. If neurogenesis is blocked, it can affect one’s ability to perform normal functions.

Fournier’s doctoral thesis provides a better fundamental understanding of the science of neurogenesis.

“Neil was first to reveal that brain cells born after even mild seizures can form pathways that encourage the generation of future seizures,” Kalynchuk says.

He proved that the brain can generate these cells without having grand mal seizures or sustaining serious brain damage.

He looked at how brains affected with epilepsy generate unusual cells and what function these cells serve. His work showed that epileptic seizures triggered a complete change in the wiring and function of certain cells in the brain.

“Depressed patients show less neurogenesis, and some patients with depression show an increase in neurogenesis and better recovery when given certain anti-depressants,” Fournier says.

Because neurogenesis is central to a broad range of neurological disorders, his work could contribute to studies on depression, Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia.

“The link between epilepsy and depression has led researchers to look not only at the day-to-day challenges faced by people living with epilepsy, but at common genetic characteristics,” he says.

“It may be that in certain cases the brain is wired in such a way that makes it susceptible to both depression and epilepsy,” Fournier says.

Now continuing his research on neurogenesis at Yale University School of Medicine, Fournier became interested in the science of epilepsy as an undergrad. He realized that epilepsy “causes severe changes in the structure and function of the brain, yet so little is known about it.”

During his PhD work, Fournier was the recipient of numerous academic awards.

Kalynchuk’s lab at the U of S pushed his curiosity, always encouraging him to “pursue the unknown and to try to discover new ways to think about old problems,” he says.

He hopes his work will one day help clinicians develop more effective treatments for people with epilepsy.

Lisa Johnson is a graduate student intern for the U of S research communications office.

This article first ran as part of the 2010 Young Innovators series, an initiative of the U of S Research Profile and Impact office in partnership with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

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