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Purple Day: raising awareness about epilepsy

Mac Burnham explains the neurological disorder

You don't have to wear this much purple to raise awareness March 26 (photo by Ken K Liu via Flickr)

You know those lilac pants you bought but haven’t yet been able to wear in public? On March 26 you'll have a chance to show off those new slacks and feel altruistic about your fashion-forward style by supporting epilepsy awareness.

Since 2012, thanks to a young Nova Scotian named Cassidy Megan and her work spearheading a unanimously supported bill in Parliament, March 26 is recognized as Purple Day in Canada. Today, the list of countries celebrating the event includes the US, UK, South Africa and Australia.

Motivated by her own struggles with epilepsy, Megan initiated the movement in an attempt to dispel myths and raise awareness of the neurological condition that affects one in 26 people. So on Wednesday March 26, add some purple flair to your outfit and support one of the 26 people that will develop epilepsy during their life.

To further Megan’s efforts U of T News interviewed Mac Burnham, a neuropharmacologist and the director of U of T’s Epilepsy Research Program. Burnham’s research looks at new treatments for seizures and focuses on diet therapies and new anticonvulsant drug development.

What is epilepsy?
A neurological disorder characterized by spontaneous and repeated seizures. A seizure is a period of hyperactivity in the brain.

Can someone “get” epilepsy or develop it? Or is it something people are born with?
Epilepsy cannot be “caught” like an infectious disease. It may develop as a result of brain injury or damage. Most people are not born with it. The onset is usually in childhood or old age. There is, however, an inherited tendency.

Describe the work you do at U of T.
At U of T, we are trying to evolve new treatments for drug resistant epilepsy. In particular, for complex partial seizures, the most common type of seizures in adults and one of the most drug resistant.

We have been working to evolve a drug that has effects similar to the Ketogenic diet, a diet that often suppresses drug resistant seizures. We also have been working to develop drugs related to progesterone metabolites, since these have anticonvulsant effects. Finally, we have been working on a new anticonvulsant diet, which is high in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid. 

Why is your research important?
About 1 in 200 people have complex partial seizures, most of which resist control by the current anticonvulsants.

What was your motivation for getting involved in this field of research?
Participating in a support group for parents of children with uncontrolled seizures motivated me to get involved in epilepsy research.

What are some of the new treatments being offered to people with epilepsy?
New anticonvulsant drugs, improved seizure surgery, improved diet therapy and brain stimulation.

What kind of support can I offer to a friend with epilepsy?
If their seizures are uncontrolled, make sure that they seek a referral to an epileptologist or a specialized epilepsy centre. Also, refer them to their local epilepsy association for information and community support.

Why is Purple Day and epilepsy awareness so important?             
Most people think that epilepsy is all “cured”. They need to know that there is still a great deal of work to be done.

Michael Kennedy is a writer with University Relations at the University of Toronto.