Pioneering work developing a non-drug therapy to overcome epilepsy has earned its inventor a prestige award. It could change the lives of the one in 100 people who suffer the neurological condition.
Dr Yoko Nagai, Wellcome Trust research fellow from the Brighton and Sussex Medical School, was presented with the Clinical Science Gowers Award from the International League Against Epilepsy UK in October 2016. Her groundbreaking work, developed over 20 years, uses a technique called Autonomic Cognitive Rehabituation Training (ACRT), which trains sufferers techniques to recognise and control seizures before they take hold.
Dr Nagai, a global authority on using behavioural therapy, is now launching a crowdfunding campaign to complete the development of an online therapy program through which she can teach patients worldwide the techniques of ACRT, via computer, tablet or mobile phone.
Speaking from her office in the University of Sussex, Dr Nagai said: “When sufferers learn the technique and realise they can control seizures it is a life-changing moment for them. It is tremendously empowering. I need to raise about £20,000 to complete the development of the system and establish the online program.”
Dr Nagai, who was born in Japan and came to the UK to work about 20 years ago, has spent much of her career researching the role of the autonomic nervous system in epilepsy, in particular the relationship between bodily responses and reactions, and the differences between the “excitation” of the body and the brain, the psychological and the physiological. She has developed ACRT as a holistic therapy which investigates the emotional causes behind epileptic seizures and provides the patient with the skills to anticipate and prevent them happening.
- Dr Nagai comes from a medical family. Her father is a gastro-intestinal surgeon, still running a clinic in Japan at the age of 72. Her sister is an oncologist
- After a degree in pharmaceutical science in Japan, Dr Nagai came to the UK to pursue a PhD in psychophysiology, with an interest in investigating human consciousness, particularly the interaction of mind and body. In 2016, she also obtained an MBA with distinction – cramming three years’ study into about one, by working evenings and weekends.
- She is married to a professor specialising in the autonomic nervous system who she met in 2001. They have two daughters aged nine and five.
On her website, one patient at Dr Nagai’s Brighton clinic, referred to as Michael, explains how effective the treatment has been and how his life has changed. “Despite being on medication for six years, I continued to have between three and six seizures a month. I lost my driving licence and as a self-employed carpenter this had a huge impact on my work. Trying ACRT for the first time was quite tricky, but after a few sessions I really got the technique. Now I’m very happy to be seizure-free and I hope to reduce my medication in a couple of months.”
Another patient, Gordon, from London, explains: “My spasms have decreased from about 40 a month to almost zero, which I would never have believed possible. I now feel more confident and less anxious about life.”
Dr Nagai said these case histories were just two of many successes for her patients, whose lives have been changed by learning the techniques of ACRT. She explained: “Seizures are usually the source of a great deal of anxiety and frustration. ACRT can help rebuild confidence and self-esteem and offers the chance to lead a freer and fuller life.”
The technique of ACRT takes about four weeks to learn and Dr Nagai recommends 12 sessions of 45 minutes three times a week. Some opt for face-to-face sessions in her Brighton clinic, others log on via a live computer link. When the online program is developed, patients will be able to teach themselves via software on their computer, tablet or mobile phone, using a small sensor which will be posted to them.
Dr Nagai said some patients notice a change in their epilepsy within the first week, some take longer. She hopes to create a worldwide network for sufferers, so they can support each other.
If she reaches her crowdfunding goal in time, Dr Nagai plans to get the wider trial in operation by the end of the year.