The Science of Seizures

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Prof. Tallie Z. Baram. Seized with a love of science


One day, on rounds with a chief physician, Prof. Tallie Z. Baram - then a medical resident - was told to inject a hormone, ACTH, into an infant suffering from a particular form of infant epilepsy. "Why do I give this to a baby with epilepsy?" she asked. The answer was: "Because it works." To Baram, a graduate of the Weizmann Institute’s Feinberg Graduate School who now heads the epilepsy research program at the University of California at Irvine, the unanswered question became a challenge: "I think this is one of the moments that inspired me to find out what happens in the brains of children when they have a seizure."
Baram had always wanted to be involved in science. Born in Tel Aviv, she spent two years in Ethiopia as a child, an experience that, she says, opened her eyes to the diversity of the world. While in high school, her love of science brought her to a Weizmann Institute summer science camp. After receiving a B.Sc. in biology from Tel Aviv University, she came to the Institute to study neuroscience under the guidance of Prof. Yitzhak Koch, now of the Neurobiology Department. At Weizmann, her work focused on a neuropeptide hormone released by the brain. Baram fondly remembers meeting interesting people in the biology library at midnight or holding freewheeling coffee-fueled discussions in the neurobiology lab of Prof. Menahem Segal at 2:00 a.m. It was, she says, "an awesome teaching environment, where independent thinking was encouraged."
Baram’s Ph.D. work earned her a John F. Kennedy Prize from the Feinberg Graduate School. She used the prize to attend a two-year course of medical studies designed for Ph.D.s at the University of Miami School of Medicine. Baram was one of 35 accepted into the program, out of around 1,000 applicants. She then did a residency in pediatrics, combined with a fellowship in child neurology, at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.
After holding faculty positions at the University of Texas and the University of Southern California, Baram moved to the University of California at Irvine in 1995. There she founded the UCI Epilepsy Research Center, where she is currently executive director. Epilepsy affects 50 million people worldwide; it is not one single disease but around 40 related syndromes. Baram has gained international recognition for her studies of how high fever in children affects brain neurons, causing febrile seizures. She showed that prolonged seizures can eventually result in changes to the developing brain and in some cases lead to epilepsy later in life. These studies might make it possible to predict susceptibility to certain forms of epilepsy; they also shed light on the development of healthy brains.
While investigating the neurological basis of the type of infant epilepsy known as infantile spasms, Baram revealed the mechanism by which certain hormones, including ACTH, produce their effect. Her research in this area may form the basis of new, more effective drugs for treating the condition. In December 2005, Baram became the first woman to receive the Epilepsy Research Recognition Award of the American Epilepsy Society, considered the top honor in the world for epilepsy research.