The fruit flies have done it again. Scientists have once again used the common lab insects known as Drosophila melanogaster to study the link between epilepsy and metabolism, by way of measuring fruit fly movement with inexpensive web-cams.
The scientists, led by Dr. Daniel Kuebler, hypothesized that diet and metabolic defects could have an effect on a person’s susceptibility to seizures. Through their research, they also identified a common diabetes drug that may be able to treat people with epilepsy — metformin, which is often used for type 2 diabetes. In the study, metformin was able to lessen the intensity of seizures.
“This technique has allowed us to identify a number of metabolism-altering drugs that affect seizure susceptibility,” Kuebler said in the press release. “It has opened up a new line of research looking at the effect dietary modifications have on seizure susceptibility.”
There is not much understanding behind why seizures happen, so how did the scientists pinpoint diet and metabolism as a possible starting point? Epilepsy has been linked to metabolic disorders in the past, as seizures can be a symptom of errors in metabolism. Even though patients with epilepsy can respond to specific treatments by diet, not many treatments are actually available aside from typical antiepileptic drugs. “It is well known that certain diets, such as the ketogenic diet, have effects on seizures, but there is little agreement on the mechanism behind this diet,” Kuebler said. “This technique allows us to better address this question.”
Also, it’s important to note that metabolic disorders may cause seizures, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the patient has epilepsy per se. Metabolism refers to our process of breaking food down into chemicals our body uses to survive; our brains, meanwhile, require proper amino acids as well as structural and catalytic proteins. A metabolic disorder can mean many things: a lack of an enzyme or vitamin, slowed chemical reactions from a build-up of a chemical, and other things. These problems, in turn, can lead to impaired brain development, mitochondrial disease, or seizures. Finding a way to treat a potential underlying metabolic disorder could lead scientists to improved seizure treatments.
The ketogenic diet, which is a high-fat, medium-protein, and low-carbohydrate diet, can be helpful for children suffering from seizures. A classic ketogenic diet is not balanced and consists of an egg with bacon for breakfast, tuna salad for lunch, keto yogurt or keto custard for snacks, and a cheeseburger with no bun for dinner. According to the Epilepsy Foundation, a third of children who are on the ketogenic diet become seizure-free after a while. Putting a child on the ketogenic diet, however, “without medical guidance puts a child at risk of serious consequences,” the Foundation notes on its website. Doctors are not entirely sure why the ketogenic diet is able to treat seizures, or why it only works for some people, but research continues to look into this.
Kuebler and his team focused on studying one fruit fly at a time, compared to most studies that analyze the behavior of fruit flies as a whole. He said this was helpful in noticing subtle differences in both behavior and seizures. “Video tracking systems have been used widely to analyze [fruit flies] movement and detect various abnormalities in [motion],” Kuebler said in the press release. “[But] while these systems can provide a wealth of behavioral information, the cost and complexity of these systems can be prohibitive for many labs.”
Instead of publishing the study in text, the scientists made it in a video format to better visualize “the seizure behavior,” Kuebler said in the press release. “This low cost system is simple enough to set up in an undergraduate teaching lab and can allow for students to do some inquiry based learning labs on a budget.”