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Absence seizures are a common seizure type in children with genetic generalized epilepsy and are characterized by a temporary loss of awareness, arrest of physical activity, and accompanying spike-and-wave discharges on an electroencephalogram. They arise from abnormal, hypersynchronous neuronal firing in brain thalamocortical circuits. Currently available therapeutic agents are only partially effective and act on multiple molecular targets, including γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) transaminase, sodium channels, and calcium (Ca2+) channels. We sought to develop high-affinity T-type specific Ca2+ channel antagonists and to assess their efficacy against absence seizures in the Genetic Absence Epilepsy Rats from Strasbourg (GAERS) model. Using a rational drug design strategy that used knowledge from a previous N-type Ca2+ channel pharmacophore and a high-throughput fluorometric Ca2+ influx assay, we identified the T-type Ca2+ channel blockers Z941 and Z944 as candidate agents and showed in thalamic slices that they attenuated burst firing of thalamic reticular nucleus neurons in GAERS. Upon administration to GAERS animals, Z941 and Z944 potently suppressed absence seizures by 85 to 90% via a mechanism distinct from the effects of ethosuximide and valproate, two first-line clinical drugs for absence seizures. The ability of the T-type Ca2+ channel antagonists to inhibit absence seizures and to reduce the duration and cycle frequency of spike-and-wave discharges suggests that these agents have a unique mechanism of action on pathological thalamocortical oscillatory activity distinct from current drugs used in clinical practice.
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