JAN 09, 2022 10:00 AM PST

Transplanted Pig Brain Cells Cured Epilepsy in a Sea Lion

WRITTEN BY: Ryan Vingum

Epilepsy is a disorder characterized by abnormal brain activity (often caused by a genetic condition, injury, or stroke) which results in seizures. Upwards of 3 million people in the U.S. live with epilepsy.

While there are no cures for epilepsy, many treatments exist to help manage seizures caused by epilepsy. These treatments work by silencing abnormal brain activity that cause seizures. Surgery to implant devices that regulate brain activity may also be an option, though surgery is invasive and risky. Pharmaceuticals, on the other hand, often come with a lot of unpleasant side effects, such as changes in mood, because they tend to target the entire brain, rather than the centralized area of the brain causing seizures. 

Last year, researchers attempted something a bit unique: a sea lion named Cronutt was suffering from epilepsy and seizures. His keepers had tried many treatments, but none seemed to work. So, they tried an experimental treatment: implanting healthy pig brain cells, which turned out to be beneficial. Since the procedure in 2020, Cronutt has been seizure free. So what exactly happened?

The treatment was based on previous research that suggested the use of brain cells derived from pig embryos helped mitigate occurrences of seizures in mice. The cells used in the procedure were precursor neurons called medial ganglionic eminence cells, and were injected into a very specific region of the brain, which researchers hoped would reduce the likelihood of side effects. Medial ganglionic eminence cells play an important part during fetal development, where they reside in the hippocampus and work as a check on overactivity in the brain and help keep electrical activity in balance. 

People with epilepsy often have damaged or missing neurons, and therefore do not have anything to inhibit overactive brain activity. Researchers note that while Cronutt has thrived and is seizure free, the cells they implanted cannot reverse any damage that might already have occurred. 

While any attempts to replicate this treatment in humans is several years off, researchers believe the use of similar brain cells and a similar procedure could hold promise. Though not without its own set of risks (e.g., the body rejecting foreign cells), the use of neuron cells could offer a different treatment approach than pharmaceuticals and surgery. 

Sources: National Geographic; Epilepsy; CDC; Annals of Neurology

About the Author
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Science writer and editor, with a focus on simplifying complex information about health, medicine, technology, and clinical drug development for a general audience.
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