It may not seem like an obvious treatment for epilepsy, but results from a team at Johns Hopkins Medical Institute have found that a chemical in anti-dandruff shampoo might be useful for treating the illness. Epilepsy occurs when nerve pathways in the brain “short-circuit”, and nerves start firing off inappropriately. This is partly due to faulty behaviour on the part of potassium channels, proteins that help to calm down the firing of nerve cells by letting potassium flow out.
The researchers were studying these channels and tested thousands of chemicals to find ones that could boost the recovery and activity of the channels after they had been damaged. One chemical that proved quite effective in improving channel recovery was zinc pyrithione, the active ingredient in many dandruff shampoos. The chemical is just the right shape to slot into the channel and help potassium flow through. Lead researcher Professor Min Li suggests we can think of these channels as doors on the cell’s surface, so the chemical makes the door both easier to open and stay open longer. He says “It’s like a tunable hinge that helps sticky doors swing freely.”
The team also looked at nerve cells grown in the lab, carrying a fault in their potassium channels that is also found in certain human epilepsy conditions. They found that the anti-dandruff chemical could also help boost the activity of the faulty potassium channels. As always, more work needs to be done, but this discovery could lead to improved treatments for epilepsy in the future.