Thank you for taking your time and showing interest in my research. My name is Tanja and I am Post-Doctoral Scholar at the Department of Neurosurgery at the Medical University of South Carolina. My program of research combines clinical and neuroimaging techniques to help treat epilepsy and its comorbidities in children. I am originally from Germany, where I did my PhD in clinical Neurosciences and came to beautiful Charleston in 2013.
What made me want to be a researcher? When I was a kid and people would ask me what I want to be when I am older I would answer: “I want to be an astronaut!” Pretty quickly, I realized that motion sickness would probably throw a wrench in my plans, so I decided that I wanted to “rescue the world”. So here I am. As a researcher in pediatric epilepsy, I am not rescuing the world, but I am able to contribute a small piece to help treat children with epilepsy.
Every so often it is helpful to reflect on why your job matters to you - why you put in all the effort, passion, commitment, but also disappointments. Personal experiences have spurred me to be passionate about epilepsy. My niece has epilepsy, and seeing my brother and sister-in-law navigate health care issues and noticing their fears regarding when her next seizure will occur fuels my desire to focus on research in epilepsy. Knowing that my niece’s brain can ‘hang like a computer crashing out of the blue’, helps me to recognize the importance of innovative research in pediatric epilepsy. There continues to be a great need for behavioral healthcare and early screening for comorbidities as they can influence patient and family daily living and quality of life.
My study is the first to use a novel brain imaging technique that allows us to examine the structural details of the brains of children with epilepsy. We can then connect these structural details to symptoms of depression found in these children. In more specific detail, my study links neuropsychological measurements with structural brain imaging to evaluate whether depressive symptom are associated with specific volume changes in the brains of children with epilepsy. Twenty-five children with epilepsy were evaluated for depressive symptoms and were imaged with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The study found that in specific brain regions there was an increase in gray matter volume that was associated with a higher overall depressive symptom severity. Further, specific groups of depressive symptoms are associated with gray matter changes in the same brain regions. These findings provide evidence for progressive reorganization of brain networks, supporting the presence of diverse patterns or clusters of depressive symptoms in children with epilepsy. Knowledge that specific brain regions are involved in depressive symptoms may help tailor and improve treatments and subsequent outcomes over the course of epilepsy and quality of life. My aim is to improve our understanding of the neurobiological changes that occur in children with epilepsy and the associated cognitive and behavioral health comorbidities, and to identify biomarkers that may assist in predicting the effect of (non-)surgical treatments. My research combines clinical and neuroimaging techniques to examine behavioral health functioning in children and adolescents with epilepsy. Understanding how and when comorbidities, such as depression, anxiety, learning disorders and ADHD occur with epilepsy could lead to improvements in the way we identify and treat both epilepsy and its comorbidities. My research was accepted for presentation as a poster at the largest, most well respected, and innovative scientific meeting in the field of epilepsy - the American Epilepsy Society (AES). Why is it important for me to present this data? Perhaps, one of the most important benefits is the ability to advocate for children with epilepsy by presenting my findings to other epilepsy researchers and clinicians, but also to increase public awareness of this innovative research in my field. Because my research provides a link between interdisciplinary fields, it is imperative that I interact with other excellent researchers from different fields and exchange ideas, as well as receive productive feedback about my work. Attending the AES meeting in Houston in December and presenting my findings will give me the opportunity to discuss my research and learn valuable information from people working with similar techniques and populations.Epilepsy is one of the most common neurological disorders during childhood and adolescence. More than 450,000 children and adolescents in the United States currently live with epilepsy. Odds of depression in this population are threefold compared to healthy children, but also higher than in kids with other neurological disorders (e.g., migraine), suggesting that neuropathophysiological and/or psychosocial factors (e.g., uncertainty associated with unpredictability of seizures, social isolation, independence with self-management, and driving restrictions), specific to epilepsy may provide more “insult” for children with epilepsy. Given the complexities of depression in children, it is important to examine specific symptoms of depression in children with epilepsy. To date, no study has investigated structural brain changes in relation to specific clusters of depressive symptoms. The current study is the first to use a specific brain imaging technique called voxel-based morphometry (VBM), which allows the examination of differences in brain anatomy, to relate structural brain changes in children with epilepsy to different clusters of depressive symptoms. The proposed project is significant for the following reason: it will potentially identify a biomarker for epilepsy comorbidities and inform further needed research regarding brain networks, epilepsy comorbidities, and neuroimaging in children with epilepsy. Understanding how different depressive clusters relate to specific brain regions could inform treatment methods and decrease the severity of epilepsy comorbidities.