To study epilepsy, a new stem cell-based approach has yielded a surprising discovery about what causes one form of the disease.
This may help in the search for better medicines to treat all kinds of seizure disorders.
The findings, reported by a team of scientists from the University of Michigan Medical School and colleagues, use a technique that could be called "epilepsy in a dish".
By turning skin cells of epilepsy patients into stem cells, and then turning those stem cells into neurons, or brain nerve cells, the team created a miniature testing ground for epilepsy.
They could even measure the signals that the cells were sending to one another, through tiny portals called sodium channels.
In neurons derived from the cells of children who have a severe, rare genetic form of epilepsy called Dravet syndrome, the researchers report abnormally high levels of sodium current activity.
They saw spontaneous bursts of communication and "hyperexcitability" that could potentially set off seizures.
Neurons made from the skin cells of people without epilepsy showed none of this abnormal activity.
The study is published online in the Annals of Neurology.