Fall 2017

‘Silent seizures’ and Alzheimer’s

with Keith Vossel, M.D., M.Sc.

The son of a small-town Tennessee doctor, Keith Vossel, M.D., M.Sc., was hardwired with a passion for medicine long before he began exploring biomedical engineering as an undergraduate. His early interest in applying engineering to medical questions ultimately led him to his new position as a University of Minnesota Health neurologist and scientist at the renowned N. Bud Grossman Center for Memory Research and Care at the University of Minnesota. Here, he’s laser-focused on understanding the neuronal dysfunction that comes with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and other forms of dementia.

Nigel Buchanan

You’re investigating what you call “silent seizures” that affect many early-stage Alzheimer’s patients. How will knowledge in this area help move us toward treating or even curing AD? 

In my previous work, we learned that more than 40 percent of AD patients were having silent seizure-related activity—subtle neuronal activity that many people didn’t even realize was happening and that can only be detected with sensitive tests like extended EEG and MEG [electroencephalogram and magnetoencephalogram]. After monitoring them over time, we found that the patients with seizure activity were experiencing faster decline. Our hope is that using antiseizure medicines already on the market may improve AD symptoms and possibly modify the course of the disease.

Has this been evaluated in humans yet? 

We initiated a Phase II clinical trial at the University of California, San Francisco, where I worked previously, of an FDA- approved antiseizure drug to treat the epileptic activity associated with AD. We’re setting up to continue the study in Minnesota, and I’m planning to begin enrolling patients with AD in the trial this fall.

You’ve worked with top scientists on both coasts. What drew you to the University of Minnesota?

The Grossman Center has a great reputation. It was a rare opportunity to join [founding director] Karen Ashe’s group here to help continue building this into an Alzheimer’s center that rivals any other in the world.

The infrastructure is already here at the U: world-class imaging and laboratory facilities, top researchers with brilliant minds, and extraordinary philanthropists like Beverly Grossman.

How important is philanthropy to your work? 

Given the landscape of the National Institutes of Health right now, we really need a lot of support from other funding sources. And it’s always a privilege to work with individuals who share a personal commitment to our work.

Having the support we have here is very liberating. It allows me to focus on the science and keep trying to find answers to the most important questions that will lead to treatments that slow the progression of the disease.

Make a gift to the N. Bud Grossman Center for Memory Research and Care today, or for more information on how your support makes a difference, contact Lisa Meyer at 612-301-8304 or llmeyer@umn.edu.
Alzheimer’s disease can make a mess of the brain, causing confusion, memory loss, and delusions. In this image from the brain of a mouse modeling human dementia from the University of Minnesota’s N. Bud Grossman Center for Memory Research and Care, the protein tau clumps together irregularly inside the neurons. The team discovered last year that an enzyme called caspase-2 “cuts” tau at a certain point, making tau accumulate in the dendritic spines of the neurons—which leads to memory impairment, the researchers believe. The Grossman Center, created in 2007 with a lead gift from Beverly Grossman and supported by many other donors since, marks its 10th anniversary this fall.