Electrodes in the brain put Alyce back in the saddle: Pioneering op offers normal life to young rider who had 100 epileptic seizures a day

From the time she was a toddler, Alyce Jayne Stockdale endured up to 100 epileptic seizures a day.

Now aged 21, she hopes a pioneering operation that involves inserting electrodes into the brain could give her a normal life. Following recent approval for the technique’s use in Europe, Alyce Jayne became the first epilepsy patient in Britain to have the procedure.

And although it may be a year before the full benefits are felt, she has recently experienced a seizure-free day – something that had become almost unimaginable. A keen horserider, she plans to be back in the saddle this weekend.

High hopes: Alyce Jane riding. Her life has been transformed

High hopes: Alyce Jane riding. She is hoping her life will be transformed

Alyce Jayne, from Burnley, Lancashire, has suffered with epilepsy since she was 18 months old. Last year, her condition worsened and she started to have difficulty speaking. She now needs round-the-clock care from her mother Ann, 54.

Alyce Jayne says: ‘My major seizures were brought under control 14 years ago by medication. But I still get between 50 and 100 drop attacks every day, where I lose consciousness and slump for a second. It’s like a puppet having its strings cut. It’s affected my social life, education, hobbies – everything.’

Epilepsy affects more than 450,000 people in the UK. Most frequently starting in childhood, it is a long-term incurable neurological condition but seizures can often be controlled using medication. Sometimes, though, there can be severe side effects, such as nausea and depression.

An epileptic seizure is caused by a burst of excess electrical activity in the brain, creating a temporary disruption in the normal message-passing between brain cells. About a third of patients, including Alyce Jayne, do not respond to drugs or cannot have traditional surgery that removes the part of the brain causing epilepsy, because in these patients it would hinder normal brain functioning.

The six-hour operation under general anaesthetic involves a surgeon making two small incisions in the scalp, an inch above the ears. Using a device similar to a dentist’s drill, twoholes are made in the skull

But Alyce Jayne’s future has been transformed after she underwent a pioneering operation – known as deep brain stimulation – at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary last month.

The six-hour operation under general anaesthetic involves a surgeon making two small incisions in the scalp, an inch above the ears. Using a device similar to a dentist’s drill, two holes are made in the skull.

The surgeon then cuts through the brain membrane by inserting a scalpel through the holes. Using long hollow needles, a thin lead is passed down into the brain. Under X-ray, the surgeon places the two ends, containing four titanium electrodes, in the brain. A small titanium plate is fitted to the skull to hold the electrodes in place. Next, a 3in incision is made in the chest to insert a titanium-cased battery under the skin. Leads from the electrodes are threaded under the skin to connect with the battery.

‘This operation won’t cure Alyce Jayne but we hope it will give back her quality of life,’ says neurosurgeon Claire Nicholson, who carried out the procedure. ‘We hope there’s at least a 50 per cent reduction in her seizures.

The six-hour operation under general anaesthetic involves a surgeon making two small incisions in the scalp

The six-hour operation under general anaesthetic involves a surgeon making two small incisions in the scalp

‘Some patients see an improvement in the weeks after the operation simply because the electrodes are in place. That’s why we waited a few weeks until we switched on the system, on December 1 in Alyce Jayne’s case. Then, using a wireless device, we find the best level of electrical pulses for the patient.

‘Some might see an immediate improvement, but in most the best possible effect takes a year. It’s a completely new operation that doesn’t replace any others, but gives a new option to patients who have not responded to other treatments.’

In US research published last year, 41 per cent taking part in a trial showed a reduction in seizures after 13 months. In this country, there are already plans to perform the procedure on at least four other patients in the coming months. It is estimated there are 40,000 epilepsy patients in Europe who could benefit.

Alyce Jayne simply hopes for a normal life – with a job, a driving licence, and time to ride. ‘We’re hoping the operation will bring my seizures under control,’ she says. ‘For the first time, I can look forward to the future.’

www.epilepsy.org.uk