There are many parallels between the conditions suffered by both humans and pets, as they are exposed to the same environment, which means research in medical and veterinary science fields often has human implications.
Researchers at the University of Melbourne are focusing on ground-breaking research into a range of conditions suffered both by animals and humans. The research will hopefully change the way pets and humans are diagnosed and treated, and their overall quality of life. These areas include hormone disorders, such as diabetes and digestive problems in cats and dogs.
Dr Sam Long is a Board-certified specialist in neurology, a neurosurgeon and the Head of Neurology at the University of Melbourne Veterinary Hospital. One of his particular areas of research interest is the treatment of epilepsy in dogs.
“Epilepsy is a debilitating disease not only for humans but for dogs too. It is one of the most common neurological diseases seen in dogs where up to five per cent of all presentations to vets are for seizures and 30 per cent of dogs are never well controlled with medication,” Dr Long says.
“People suffer from the same condition and a similar number of people never have acceptable control over their seizures.”
Seizures can reduce a dog’s lifespan by about two years, can cause behavioural changes, unconsciousness, loss of bowel and bladder control, and in extreme cases death. For the owners of epileptic dogs, the experience of seeing their dog have a seizure is distressing and many dogs are euthanised because of their seizures.
“If we can find a cure for this condition we would be able to stop these debilitating seizures and hopefully extend the lives of many dogs,” Dr Long says.
The research Dr Long and his team are undertaking focuses on a new treatment for seizures known as counter-current stimulation. It will be used to treat both dogs and humans.
It has been known for some time that electrical stimulation of certain parts of the brain can decrease the brain’s overall excitability and even reverse seizures. Dr Long and his team are investigating an implantable bionic device known as the Brain Radio, which is one of the first devices ever developed that can provide this electrical stimulation while simultaneously recording its effect on brain activity.
The Brain Radio is connected to two electrodes in the brain – one for stimulating and one for recording. However, placing the electrodes within the brain requires extremely accurate targeting, which is provided by a second device known as the Brainsight neuronavigation system, similar to the systems used by neurosurgeons to operate on people during brain surgery.
The Veterinary Hospital now has a Brainsight system which, with the hospital’s 1.5 Tesla MRI scanner, has been essential in performing this research: Dr Long and his team have discovered it is safe and feasible to place small electrodes deep within the brain with high precision and without side effects.
“Presently the treatment for dog epilepsy involves anticonvulsant medication, but about a third of these dogs don’t respond to the drugs and just under half experience side effects,” Dr Long says.
“Since human epilepsy is very similar to canine epilepsy, successful treatment of seizures in dogs is expected to lead to the use of this device in people, potentially within the following two years.
“Epilepsy is debilitating – not only because patients with epilepsy suffer severe side effects from medication, but also because patients never know when their next seizure will occur, severely limiting the activities they can take part in. As a result, a cure for epilepsy would dramatically change the lives of both people and dogs.
“The Brain Radio could be the effective alternative treatment we are looking for to help these dogs.”
If successful, this treatment will revolutionise the treatment of epilepsy in patients by providing a treatment method that does not require drugs.
“A major limitation for our research is funding. There is a lot of exciting research that we want to undertake which is of benefit to pets and humans but the common issue is financial support. As the Veterinary Hospital doesn’t receive government funding, it can be challenging to generate funds to support research that can improve the quality of life for pets and humans” Dr Long says.
For more information: www.vh.unimelb.edu.au/