Publish date: 06 December 2023

People with epilepsy experience brain waves usually only present in others during sleep, and these ‘slow’ waves may protect against increased brain excitability associated with the condition, according to new research from UCLH and UCL.

Increasing the occurrence of these brain waves could be a potential novel treatment for people with epilepsy, if future research shows this is possible.

The research, published in Nature Communications, examined electroencephalogram (EEG) scans from electrodes in the brains of 25 patients with focal epilepsy (a type of epilepsy characterised by seizures arising from a specific part of the brain), while they carried out an associative memory task.

During the task, participants were presented with 27 pairs of images that remained on a screen for six seconds. The images were in nine groups of three, and each group featured a picture of a person, a place and an object. In each case, participants had to remember which images had been grouped together.

The participants were all assessed to be alert and responsive during the task and EEG data was recorded continuously throughout.

After reviewing the data, the team found that the brains of people with epilepsy were producing slow waves – lasting less than one second - while they were awake and taking part in the task.

The occurrence of these waves increased in line with upsurges in brain excitability and decreased the impact of epileptic spikes on brain activity.

NHNN consultant neurologist Professor Matthew Walker, the senior author on the paper, said: “Sleep is crucial for repair, maintenance and resetting brain activity. When we are awake, we experience a progressive increase in brain excitability, which is redressed during sleep.

“Recent studies have indicated that a specific form of brain activity, slow waves during sleep, play a crucial role in these restorative functions. We wanted to address whether these ‘sleep’ slow waves could occur during wakefulness in response to abnormal increases in brain activity associated with epilepsy.

“This study unveils, for the first time, a potential protective mechanism, ‘wake’ slow waves, employed by the brain to counteract epileptic activity. This mechanism takes advantage of protective brain activity that normally occurs during sleep, but, in people with epilepsy, can occur during wakefulness.”

As part of the research, the team also wanted to test if the occurrence of these slow waves had any negative effects on cognitive function.

During the memory task, researchers found that the waves reduced nerve cell activity and so affected cognitive performance – increasing the length of time required by patients to complete the task.

The team reported that for each increase of one slow wave per second, the reaction time increased by 0.56 seconds.

Professor Walker said: “This observation suggests that the cognitive difficulties - in particularly, memory deficits - experienced by individuals with epilepsy may be attributed, in part, to the brief impairments induced by these slow waves.”

The team hope that future studies will be able to increase such activity as a potential novel treatment for people with epilepsy.

Dr Laurent Sheybani of the UCL Institute of Neurology and lead author on the paper, said: “The parallel between the function of slow waves during sleep and, here, their beneficial impact in a pathological condition, is particularly interesting.

“Our study suggests that a naturally occurring activity is employed by the brain to offset pathological activities; however, this comes with a price, since ‘wake’ slow waves are shown to impact on memory performance.

“From a purely neurobiological perspective, the research also reinforces the idea that sleep activity can happen in specific areas of the brain, rather than occurring evenly throughout the brain.”

The research was funded by the Medical Research Council, Wellcome, the National Institute for Health and Care Research UCLH Biomedical Research Centre and The Swiss National Science Foundation.

Image: Professor Matthew Walker