A Device to Help Epileptics

J. Kiffin Penry, MD, a neurologist with the Medical Center, developed a national reputation by working tirelessly on treatments that would help epileptics control their disease. In the late 1970s, for example, he pushed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to speed approval of the drug valproate, which did a better job controlling seizures than other medicines.

In 1988, Penry led the Medical Center to become the first in the nation to implant a newly approved device, a vagus nerve stimulator (VNS) placed under an epileptic’s skin.

The electrical signals produced by the VNS travel along the vagus nerve in the neck to the brain at regular intervals, signaling the brain to help prevent the electrical bursts that cause seizures.

The surgery capped a nine-year research effort that led to approval of the device, which has since been implanted in tens of thousands of epilepsy patients across the country.