University of Melbourne Magazine

Decoding the mystery of epilepsy

  • When Sam Berkovic was a young medical intern in 1978 doing a training rotation in neurology at Melbourne’s Austin Hospital, he entered the orbit of a brilliant physician, Dr Peter Bladin AO.

    Dr Bladin specialised in treating epilepsy, a brain disorder shrouded in stigma and mystery due to its unknown cause. Dr Bladin (BSc 1951, MB BS 1954, MD 1971) became a mentor to Berkovic and inspired the young intern’s interest in epilepsy research.

    Fast-forward 36 years and Professor Sam Berkovic AC is now the Chair of Epilepsy Melbourne, renowned as one of the world’s largest and most effective teams of epilepsy researchers.

    Leading the way: Professor Sam Berkovic and Professor Ingrid Scheffer.

    Leading the way: Professor Sam Berkovic and Professor Ingrid Scheffer. Picture: Fred Kroh

    “The brain is the last frontier in medicine,” he says, reflecting on why he chose to specialise in treating epilepsy, which can cause debilitating physical seizures and cognitive impairment for those who have the disorder.

    “Dealing with epilepsy involves patients’ physical symptoms – how it affects the brain – and almost always significant psychological factors that contribute to patients’ loss of quality of life. One deals with a lot of young people who have the condition and therefore if you can fix it or improve it you’re giving them a lot of healthy years to look forward to.”

    Epilepsy Melbourne is a coalition of Melbourne-based medical researchers working at four University of Melbourne teaching hospitals and two research institutes, the Florey Institute and the Bionics Institute. Their collaboration has led to groundbreaking discoveries about epilepsy and helped revolutionise the way the disease is diagnosed and treated.

    Berkovic (BMedSc 1974, MB BS 1977, MD 1984) is a neurologist and director of the Epilepsy Research Centre at the Austin Hospital, where his team focuses on identifying the genetic causes of epilepsy. Decoding the mystery W Genetic research is shedding new light on a brain disorder that has long drawn an unfortunate stigma. About 3 to 4 per cent of the Australian population has epilepsy at some time in life, which ranges from mild forms with barely noticeable symptoms to much more severe types that involve chronic seizures.

    “Historically it has been a disease where people have suffered inordinately because of the stigmatisation, where people thought it involved a spiritual element of possession,” Berkovic says. “That sort of view persisted until not all that long ago. In modern society that sort of thing is no longer believed but many people still have a considerable fear of people with epilepsy.

    “We can easily empathise with someone who has bad asthma and how the condition might affect them, but the idea that someone might be lucid for most of the day and then be seized and convulsing or possibly lose consciousness is something that gives an unfortunate extra stigma to epilepsy. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about this disease at all levels of society.”