Neuroscientist Ivan Soltesz is recognized as one of world’s leading epilepsy researchers, but when talking about the focus of his work, he sounds more like the young dreamer and poet he was growing up in Budapest.
“The brain is the last great frontier,” says Soltesz, UC Irvine Chancellor’s Professor and chair of anatomy & neurobiology. “It’s the most complex organism in the universe — endlessly challenging and interesting to study.”
In his 2005 book, Diversity in the Neuronal Machine, he describes the brain’s neural landscape as a vast fecund forest, with neurons linking to “distal branches that form a wide canopy, just like the giant trees in the rain forests of Costa Rica.”
Understanding this neural interconnectivity has been a passion for Soltesz since his first days as a college biology student in his native Hungary, home to some of the 20th century’s key figures in neurobiological research.
Under the tutelage of such Hungarian giants as Péter Somogyi, György Buzsáki and Tamás Freund (all of whom received last year’s inaugural Brain Prize [pdf], which awards 1 million euros each to outstanding European neuroscientists), Soltesz has blazed a considerable trail of his own at UCI, which he joined in 1995.
“Ivan is the grandchild of this great lineage of Hungarian neuroscientists,” says Istvan Mody, a UCLA professor of neurology and physiology who supervised Soltesz’s postdoctoral studies. “He’s made outstanding contributions to our understanding of the connectivity of microcircuits within our brain cells. He’s the first to bring brain physiology together with computational neurobiology. He’s put UCI on the map in a big way.”
Soltesz leverages his knowledge of microcircuits and the neural inhibitor signals to reveal the structure and activity of neurons affected by epilepsy, a medical condition that produces seizures.
His focus is brain cell communication — specifically, how alterations in this network caused by fever-induced seizures in early childhood and after severe head trauma can trigger the onset of epilepsy.
In 2005, Soltesz received one of the nation’s top neuroscience honors, the Senator Jacob Javits Award, for his head trauma studies. The prize — which included $2.7 million — has previously gone to eight other UCI researchers, including the late Edward Jones, Charles Ribak and Dr. Tallie Z. Baram for their work on epilepsy.
These efforts have critical importance. Epilepsy affects more than 3 million Americans and 50 million people worldwide, and it’s the third-most-common neurological disorder, behind Alzheimer’s disease and stroke. No cure exists, but treatments are advancing.
“The keys are to understand why epilepsy happens and what causes it,” says Soltesz, who recently garnered the American Epilepsy Society’s 2011 Basic Science Investigator Award. “With this understanding, we’re starting to work on several seizure-stopping techniques that are really promising.”
To treat the most severe forms of epilepsy, for example, Soltesz is investigating modulation of the brain’s electrical activity. The novel procedure involves delivering light through thin optical fibers inserted into the brain center containing light-sensitive cells.
Another project aims to use technology to re-create the neuronal ecosystem Soltesz so vividly describes in his book. He and his team are developing a three-dimensional, functional model of the entire brain, an undertaking that will require massive amounts of computing power.
Parts of it are already up and running. The finished product will allow researchers to see how changes in the brain caused by disease and injury can generate other anomalies, such as seizures.
“It’s a fascinating model,” Soltesz says. “You tweak one protein, and millions of things could happen. You can follow the cascade of events like never before. And once we’re able, the model we create will be put in a database for others to access. The future is there.”