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Kalter: ‘Pacemaker for the brain’

June 29, 2017 GMT

It was the summer of 2010, and Ouida Foster hazily emerged from a seizure at a light rail stop in Hoboken, N.J. The stroller that had been carrying her 3-year-old daughter Ripley was empty, but she couldn’t remember why.

“It was terrifying,” said Foster, 40. “When you come out of a seizure, it’s like coming out of a tunnel. You’re rebooting. You’re grasping at what you can to try and make sense of it.”

Ripley had, thankfully, been dropped off safely at her day camp prior to Foster’s seizure. But those alarming episodes would occur up to 10 times a month after a 2006 epilepsy diagnosis that robbed the Brookline resident of her ability to function.

Epilepsy — a disorder that leads to irregular brain activity and can cause loss of consciousness and seizures — will affect 1 in 26 people in the U.S. at some point in their lives.

Foster was forced to quit her job as a financial analyst and tried 10 different medications, none of which kept the seizures at bay.

But, she says, her life has changed since getting “a pacemaker for the brain” — an implantable device that sends electric pulses to the problem areas before a seizure can occur.

The device, called a responsive neurostimulation system, is inserted into the skull and nodes are attached to the regions where nerve cells behave erratically. Foster has one node on each side of her brain.

Her seizures have been reduced by about 60 percent, she said, and started a job a month ago for the first time in 10 years.

“Getting to be able to work again is a huge breakthrough,” Foster said.

The system was developed by a California-based company called NeuroPace and received FDA approval in 2013. Massachusetts General Hospital, where Foster received the implant, was one of the clinical trial sites. They have treated about 25 patients with the device.

Neuron activity can be compared to blinking lights on a computer system, said Dr. Andrew J. Cole, director of MGH Epilepsy Service. The implant is programmed to detect any irregular patterns and stimulate the areas before the onset of a seizure.

Cole said medication is only effective for about 60-65 percent of people with epilepsy.

The implant has been used in about 1,000 patients nationally, he said.

“People with epilepsy sometimes go through their days worrying, ‘What if this happens as I cross the street in front of a bus? What if it happens when I’m riding my bicycle down a hill?’?” said Cole. “This is a next-generation approach to thinking about how to treat these seizure disorders.”