(CBS News) Children with epilepsy who don't respond well to anti-seizure medications are sometimes treated with a strict "ketogenic diet" that's high in fats and low in carbohydrates, including foods like bacon, hot dogs, butter and eggs.
According to the Epilepsy Foundation, the diet is so effective for some kids that they can go off "keto" for a few years and remain seizure-free. In 2010, the New York Times profiled the diet as "Epilepsy's Big Fat Miracle" and despite being prescribed at more than 100 hospitals around the country, researchers weren't exactly sure how it worked - until now.
In a new study of mice, researchers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School in Boston have found that a child's ability to stave off seizures is tied to a protein that affects metabolism in the brain. The protein, so-called BCL-2-associated Agonist of Cell Death, or BAD, also regulates metabolism of glucose.
The researchers discovered that by modifying this this, they switched metabolism in brain cells from glucose to ketone bodies, which are fat byproducts.
"It was then that we realized we had come upon a metabolic switch to do what the ketogenic diet does to the brain without any actual dietary therapy," study author Dr. Alfredo Gimenez-Cassinam a research fellow at Dana-Farber, said in a news release.
The researchers used genetically modified mice to alter the BAD protein to increase ketone metabolism in the brain, and seizures in mice decreased. The findings suggest the BAD Protein could be a promising target for future epilepsy drugs. The study is published in the May 24th issue of the journal Neuron.
Epilepsy is a neurological disorder characterized by repeated seizures, likened to electrical storms in the brain, that can appear as convulsions, loss of motor control, or loss of consciousness.
"I've met a lot of kids whose lives are completely changed by this diet," study co-author Dr. Gary Yellen, professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, said in a university news release. Yellen was introduced to the ketogenic diet through his wife, Dr. Elizabeth Thiele, who directs the Pediatric Epilepsy Program at MassGeneral Hospital for Children. "Diets in general are hard, and this diet is really hard," said Yellen, "So finding a pharmacological substitute for this would make lots of people really happy."
About two in 100 people will experience a seizure at some point in their lives, according to the Mayo Clinic, and at least two unprovoked seizures often are required to diagnose epilepsy. Anti-seizure medications such are often prescribed and brain surgery is a possibility for some people whose seizures originate in a small, well-defined area of the brain not involved with vital processes. Some children may even outgrow the condition with age.
The Mayo Clinic has more on epilepsy.