Epilepsy researcher wins prestigious science prize

Epilepsy researcher Dr Pip Karoly of the University of Melbourne has received the Prime Minister’s Prize for New Innovators for her pioneering work on personalised seizure forecasting tools.

Dr Karoly, a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Biomedical Engineering has been combining sophisticated computational techniques, long-term data from brain recordings, environmental, behavioural and physiological factors and converting them into useful seizure likelihood algorithms.

Through studying the timing of thousands of seizures in people with epilepsy, we found most had a unique pattern to their seizures akin to circadian rhythm.

“These ‘slow cycles’ affect an individual’s risk of epileptic seizure, and have previously only been measured from brain activity … our research has tracked these long-term rhythms using heart rate data collected from a wearable smartwatch, giving us a clearer picture of changes that may indicate someone’s likelihood of having an epileptic seizure,” she said.

And as a software engineer for the Australian medical technology company Seer she developed a mobile app that provides people with epilepsy insight into their seizure patterns.

Her research has also combined this app data with wearable devices and neural implants to allow people living with epilepsy to track in real time their likelihood of having a seizure across hourly, daily or monthly timescales.

“The seizure risk forecasting feature on the Seer app is based on my research into long-term cycles of seizure likelihood, which affect most people with epilepsy and are unique to their seizures. The next step will be to run clinical trials of seizure risk forecasting in Australia and the US to understand how to target this technology to best help people with epilepsy,” said Dr Karoly.

“A really rewarding part of my work is being able to span from research through to clinical translation, and work directly with the users of this technology,” she added.

Dr Karoly said that for people living with epilepsy, not knowing when a seizure will happen can cause a lot of anxiety and risk.

“The unpredictability of epileptic seizures exposes people with epilepsy to potential physical harm and restricts day-to-day activities. It can also impact significantly on mental well-being. Giving people with epilepsy the ability to understand their risk of having a seizure within a given period means they can better plan their activities around their seizure risk. Many find the app helpful to manage their anxiety and day-to-day life.”

The Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science are Australia’s most prestigious awards for outstanding achievements in scientific research, research-based innovation and excellence in science teaching.

The Prizes are presented to researchers who have made a significant contribution to the nation’s scientific and commercialisation capabilities, to science teaching, and to the country’s social and economic well-being.

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