Hal Blumenfeld, M.D., Ph.D., the recently named Mark Loughridge and Michele Williams Professor of Neurology, has spent his career trying to prevent loss of consciousness in people with epilepsy.
Earlier this year his team reported in the journal Epilepsia that impaired consciousness during and after focal seizures can be reversed by deep brain stimulation. Now he is working toward making the treatment available for patients. The discovery comes after more than a decade of research on the mechanisms of consciousness loss in focal seizures, including a landmark article recently published in Neuron, as well as research on the physiological changes in what are called absence seizures and generalized tonic-clonic seizures.
Says Blumenfeld, “My research is one hundred percent motivated [by a desire to] improve the lives of people with epilepsy. Consciousness impacts their ability to drive a car and to function at school or in other social situations.”
Blumenfeld is making significant progress, and few know better how important that is than the family who earlier this year endowed his professorship.
Meghan Loughridge’s father, Mark Loughridge, and stepmother, Michele Williams, had taken Meghan around the world looking for a way to control her epilepsy. Eventually they found themselves in Houston, at another hospital, waiting for yet another test. Meghan was scared, but this was nothing unusual.
Mark describes Meghan’s life as “a movie with every fifth frame missing.” She would have 30 seizures in a single minute and one daily grand mal seizure, the kind characterized by a loss of consciousness and violent muscle contractions. “The world made no sense to her,” Mark says.
That day in Houston, Meghan ran from the hospital. She led Mark and Michele down a freeway, running the wrong way in traffic. They eventually convinced her to return. Mark sat in a room at a psychiatric facility alone with Meghan and attempted to soothe her. Michele sat outside and warned a police officer that she should not enter the room until Mark had more time with Meghan. But the officer entered, and Meghan punched her in the face.
Years later, the storm has calmed: the family began a new chapter when Meghan visited the Yale Comprehensive Epilepsy Center (YCEC). She’s been seizure-free for nearly two years under Blumenfeld’s care. His gentle demeanor made it easy for Meghan to buy into working with the YCEC, Mark says: “Meghan really trusts Hal.” With a thorough review of her long and complicated history, the team came up with a strategy to bring the seizures under control.
Meghan’s family offered annual support to Blumenfeld’s epilepsy research for several years before endowing the professorship. Says Mark, “This was an opportunity for us to pay back to the community ... and to a facility that had done so much for our family.”
In addition to his research on loss of consciousness during seizures, Blumenfeld, also professor of neuroscience and neurosurgery, has delved into the prevention of epilepsy. In 2008 he reported in Epilepsia that giving the anti-seizure medication ethosuximide to animals with absence epilepsy before onset of seizures markedly reduced seizures and continued to do so for months after the treatment. He continues to explore the possibility of very early treatment for human patients to change the course of the disease.
Blumenfeld is director of the Yale Clinical Neuroscience Imaging Center and a member of the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience. A graduate of Harvard University, Blumenfeld earned his M.D. and Ph.D. from Columbia University. He completed his internship in internal medicine at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center and his neurology residency at Massachusetts General Hospital. He then served as a fellow in epilepsy at Yale School of Medicine (YSM).
Blumenfeld’s research draws on such varied areas as imaging, bioengineering, and neurochemistry. Excellence across disciplines and a culture of collaboration keep him at YSM, he says: “It’s really a team effort that brings us happy stories such as Meghan’s.”
Meghan has neurological impairment from the epilepsy that began when she was a year old. Now that she’s seizure-free, there is finally a window to work on the behavioral issues that have presented such challenges to Meghan and her family.
Mark Loughridge is the former chief financial officer of IBM, and is currently lead director of Vanguard and independent director at the Dow Chemical Co. He serves on the Council on Chicago Booth for the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, where he earned an MBA.
Michele serves on the board of Mercy Learning, a group that provides literacy and life skills training to low-income women. One day one of the women Michele was tutoring had a seizure. Although almost 30, she had never been under a doctor’s care for her epilepsy.
Michele’s first call was to Blumenfeld, and the woman was referred to the YCEC for care. Says Michele, “She got exactly the same treatment that Meghan did.”