Leading Epilepsy specialist and researcher joins Mater family

Friday 25 March 2022

Mater Hospital and Mater Research are proud to welcome neurologist, epilepsy specialist and medical researcher, Professor Aileen McGonigal, who has been appointed Director of the Mater Epilepsy Unit and a new Mater Research Group Leader.                                                                                                    

Professor McGonigal specialises in stereoelectroencephalography (SEEG), which is a diagnostic method used to investigate patients with focal epilepsy who do not respond well to drug treatments and usually need surgery to control or prevent seizures.

The method involves a neurosurgeon working in collaboration with the specialist epilepsy team, to insert deep EEG electrodes in different sites within the brain while the patient is under anaesthetic. The patient’s seizures are then videoed while the SEEG data is recorded, to determine whether the seizures arise from a single brain region, and whether it is safe to operate to remove the source of the seizures.

Professor McGonigal said the method was used when non-invasive tests alone did not allow doctors to decide whether the epilepsy could be treated with surgery.

“About 45,000 Australians live with drug-resistant focal epilepsy and some of these may benefit from surgery to help control seizures,” said Professor McGonigal, who was born in Scotland and trained in the UK but specialised for 19 years in Marseille.

“SEEG has only been gaining worldwide recognition as a gold-standard diagnostic tool for surgical assessment of drug-resistant focal epilepsy in the past 15 years or so, but the French have been using the method since the 1960s and Marseille is one of the world’s leading centres for SEEG,” she said.

“I was fortunate to obtain a rich and prolonged experience with the French School of Epileptology, which to my knowledge is unique for a neurologist from an English-speaking country.

“As well as detailed analysis of the brain’s electrical rhythms recorded by depth electrodes, an important part of the SEEG process is analysing the ‘seizure semiology’ that is simultaneously recorded on video. What the patient feels and the other clinical changes that can be observed during a seizure provide important clues about which brain regions are active in the seizure.

“We have made a lot of important progress in EEG and neuroimaging methods in understanding epilepsy, but we still have a lot to learn about exactly how seizures produce their clinical effects. Increasing our knowledge of this could help us better treat patients, and better understand underlying brain function.”

Professor McGonigal said she was excited to join Mater to progress her clinical and research interests.

“The Mater Epilepsy Unit is a leading, innovative service that’s achieving outstanding outcomes for its patients in Queensland. I hope to build on those successes by making Mater a leader in the SEEG programme in Australia and internationally and giving it a role in training young epilepsy specialists in this method,” she said.

“As a clinician-researcher I am also excited to work with Mater Research to continue exploring the ‘brain-behaviour’ relationship, using epilepsy as a model. I’d also like to further explore the interactions between epilepsy and psycho-emotional aspects, such as why epilepsy patients have such high levels of anxiety and depression, and the relationship between epilepsy and stress.”

Executive Director of Mater Research, Professor Maher Gandhi said Mater was proud to welcome Professor McGonigal to head the Epilepsy, Rhythms and Behaviour Research group.

“Aileen’s strong clinical and research background make her a wonderful asset for Mater and Mater Research,” he said.

“We’re particularly looking forward to Aileen drawing on her expertise to build clinical and research collaborations locally, nationally, and internationally.”

Mater Director of Neurology, Dr Cullen O’Gorman said Professor McGonigal’s leadership would help Mater continue to provide cutting edge treatments and services to epilepsy patients in Queensland.

“About 50 million people worldwide are living with epilepsy, making it one of the most common neurological diseases globally, but many aspects are still poorly understood and there is a great need for further therapeutic advances,” he said.

“We’re excited that Aileen will lead Mater’s efforts to continue to improve treatment options and understanding of epilepsy into the future.”