Transplantation of brain cells is a new experimental treatment for epilepsy


“I call it planning and organizing,” says Cory Nicholas, a former laboratory scientist who is CEO of Neurona.

Starting with a large number of stem cells taken from a human embryo created through IVF, Neurona develops “inhibitory interneurons.” The job of these neurons is to inhibit brain activity—they tell other cells to reduce their electrical activity by releasing a chemical called GABA.

He was buried in July. He was wheeled into an MRI machine at the University of California, San Diego. There, surgeon Sharona Ben-Haim watched a screen as she guided a needle into his hippocampus, knocking out thousands of inhibitory cells. The bet was that this would start making connections and slow down the tsunami of misfires that cause epilepsy.

Ben-Haim says it’s a big change from the surgeries he does regularly. Often, in severe cases of epilepsy, they try to find and destroy the “target” of the dysfunctional cells that cause epilepsy. They will cut off part of the temporal lobe or use a laser to destroy small spots. Although this type of surgery can stop seizures permanently, it comes with the risk of “significant cognitive effects.” People can lose their memory, or even their vision.

That’s why Ben-Haim thinks stem cell therapy could be the next step. “The idea that we can provide a definitive treatment to a patient without damaging the internal organs would be a huge change in the way we treat epilepsy,” he says.

Nicholas, the CEO of Neurona, is an idiot. He said: “Modern care is medieval. “You’re cutting off part of the brain.”

For Graves, cell transplantation seems to be working. He hasn’t had any of the “adult” panic attacks, the kind that can knock you down, since he stopped drinking. But before he did this in San Diego, he was having seizures once or twice a day. These episodes, which feel like euphoria or déjà vu, or blank stares, last up to half a minute.

Now, in the diary he keeps as part of the study to read his arrest, most days of Graves revolve around “nothing.”


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