Dogs that predict epilepsy attacks: Ghent study aims to find out how
Sunday, 14 July 2019
A dog. Credit: Pxhere
A team of researchers at the university of Ghent is working on a project to discover how certain dogs are able to detect the approach of an epileptic attack in their owners, warning them in time to prevent accidents and avert danger.
Some epilepsy sufferers experience what is known as an “aura” in the lead-up to an attack, which can range from a vague feeling of unease to full-blown visual hallucinations as an attack comes on. Others have no aura and no warning and an attack could come on unexpectedly in the bath, for instance, on the stairs or in public.
There are, however, dogs that are able to predict an attack and warn the owner in time, but no-one knows exactly how or why they can do so.
Some one in three epilepsy sufferers in Belgium cannot get their attacks under control with medication alone. That amounts to about 30,000 patients, and there are not enough trained dogs to provide one for each patient. Hence the importance of discovering the mechanism by which the dogs are able to predict an attack – or to put it more scientifically, to detect the signs of an approaching attack before the patient feels any symptoms.
“We know all the anecdotes,” explained Professor Christel Moons, an expert in animal behaviour at the university of Ghent to Het Nieuwsblad. She is leading a research project together with neurologist Veerle De Herdt from Ghent university hospital to find out what is happening, and if it can be applied elsewhere.
“From all of the stories, it appears that some dogs learn [the technique] by themselves. The more attacks, the more the dog learns to anticipate,” she said. The team has recruited a group of dog owners with epilepsy, who will now be asked to keep an online diary detailing observations of the dog’s behaviour preceding an attack – dogs can give a warning anywhere from 15 minutes to 45 minutes before an attack occurs. The research group will also include owners of dogs who show no signs of warning.
The researchers have two theories: either the dog detects subtle changes in the owner’s behaviour which become associated with an impending attack; or more specifically the dog can detect the tiniest changes in the owner’s smell using the animal’s vastly more sensitive sense of smell. The breed of dog appears to play no role.
After the diaries have been collated, Dr. De Herdt will experiment with smell samples, in an effort to discover the molecule the dog is detecting. In the long term, that could lead to the development of an artificial detector apparatus. More importantly, charities which train epilepsy dogs at present could use samples of the molecule to train dogs faster and less expensively.
Dogs owners who believe their dog has this ability can join the study by signing in by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, Prof. Moons said.