[LOCAL NOTE: Jason Chiang is a 2003 graduate of West High School in Torrance]
Seeks to Reduce Seizures
To Help People with Epilepsy, Student Contributes to
Deep Brain Stimulation Research
A few months ago, Jason Chiang found himself at the
annual meeting of the American Neurological Association in
Chicago, talking with prominent researchers about the
brain seizure studies he'd participated in at Johns
Hopkins. He described how he'd helped measure serotonin
levels in rodents during induced seizures. The research,
he told conference attendees, could lead to more effective
medications for epilepsy patients who don't respond to the
current array of anti-convulsive drugs.
"They asked if I was a postdoctoral fellow, a resident or some other kind of full-time researcher," Chiang recalled. "They seemed surprised to find out I was an undergraduate."
With support from his Provost's Undergraduate Research Award, the senior biomedical engineering major gained much of this expertise last summer working in the lab of Marek A. Mirski, an associate professor in the departments of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery in the School of Medicine.
Since 1993, about 40 students each year have received PURA grants of up to $3,000 to conduct original research; some have published their results in professional journals. The awards, funded through a donation from the Hodson Trust, are an important part of the university's mission and its commitment to provide research opportunities for undergraduates. The awards are open to students in each of the university's four schools with full-time undergraduates: the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, the Whiting School of Engineering, the Peabody Conservatory and the School of Nursing.
Chiang's grant supported his work with Mirski, a leading researcher in the use of deep brain stimulation to prevent seizures. This technique involves the implantation of a type of pacemaker in the brain that sends electrical current into a structure called the anterior thalamus. Mirski and his team found that this technique reduces the occurrence of seizures. They are now trying to determine why this occurs.
The work is important because more than 50 million people worldwide have epilepsy, and about 7.5 million of them suffer from seizures that don't respond to current anti-convulsive drugs.
Mirski's team discovered that higher levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter, were apparently released during electrical stimulation in that particular region of the brain. Was this the reason for the reduced seizures?
To find out, the researchers administered drugs in the anterior thalamus that mimicked the action of serotonin in rodents experiencing seizures. Chiang participated in these experiments and helped determine that serotonin produced a significant protective effect. If more serotonin can lead to fewer seizures, he said, doctors could treat epilepsy patients with existing FDA- approved drugs that increase the levels of this neurotransmitter.
"Jason was very successful, and his work generated an abstract presentation at the prestigious annual meeting of the American Neurological Association," Mirski said.
He added that Chiang's work was incorporated into an article that has been submitted to the leading peer- reviewed epilepsy medical journal, with the undergraduate listed as a co-author.
"I'm really excited about that," Chiang said. "I was really privileged to be able to work with Dr. Mirski. These kinds of opportunities, I don't think they exist at a lot of other schools. I have friends at other universities, and they don't have this kind of access to important faculty researchers and labs."
His experience with Mirski's team led Chiang to look for new ways to measure serotonin levels. Currently, he is working on nanosensors in the lab of David Gracias, a Johns Hopkins assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. "These sensors could help us clarify the role of serotonin in epilepsy," Chiang said. "That could lead us to better treatments for people suffering from intractable epilepsy."
After graduating this spring, Chiang hopes to conduct epilepsy research in Germany and eventually become a physician scientist.
Digital photos of Jason Chiang and Marek Mirski available; Contact Phil Sneiderman.
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