Laboratory of Dr. Tracy Butler
NYU School of Medicine


C11PK11195 PET scan showing focal inflammation in a patient with epilepsy.

Inflammation in Epilepsy

Inflammation is a vital, complex process by which certain cells or tissues identified by the immune system as abnormal (e.g. foreign, damaged or dead) can be repaired or removed to facilitate continued survival of remaining cells and the organism. Excessive or dysregulated inflammation can be harmful, as occurs in systemic disorders such as lupus, and brain disorders such as multiple sclerosis. Although epilepsy is not typically considered a neuroinflammatory disorder, there is mounting evidence that inflammatory mechanisms play an important role in seizure and epilepsy.

We have been using Positron Emission Tomography (PET) with a radiotracer that binds to microglia – the brain’s only resident immune cell – to identify inflammation in the brains of people with epilepsy. While PET has previously been used to visualize inflammation in patients with seizures caused by known inflammatory conditions such as encephalitis or vasculitis, we recently demonstrated that PET can also visualize inflammation in epilepsy not associated with such conditions, emphasizing that, at least in some cases, seizures and epilepsy are intrinsically inflammatory.

The ability to identify inflammation noninvasively in people with epilepsy could have important clinical implications. As discussed in this seminal paper about the multiple roles of microglia, inflammation promotes neuroplasticity and epileptogenesis, so identifying inflammation in someone at risk of developing epilepsy (e.g. after a single seizure or a head injury) could allow interventions to prevent epilepsy – a central goal of epilepsy research which is currently impossible. Quantifying inflammation in people with epilepsy could also inform rational use of existing and new anti-inflammatory treatments (such as this one) to combat seizures.

This research is supported by grants from NIH/NINDS and the CURE foundation.