Awardee Profile - Paul Buckmaster

Paul Buckmaster

In Search of the Cause of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy
Dr. Paul Buckmaster

November 2000 - Approximately one out of every 30 people will be diagnosed with a form of epilepsy, says Paul Buckmaster, D.V.M., Ph.D., assistant professor of comparative medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine.  But people are not the only ones Buckmaster is concerned with in his studies of this disease.  A veterinarian by training, Buckmaster specifically chose his field of study because epilepsy is also very common in dogs and cats, making his findings significant across species.  “I saw [epilepsy] as an area where my research might have benefits to people and animals,” Buckmaster explained.

Temporal lobe epilepsy – that is, epilepsy caused by brain trauma – is Buckmaster’s current focus.  These injuries can include birth injury, hypoxia (a lack of oxygen to the brain), encephalitis and meningitis (inflammation of the brain or its membranes, usually caused by infection), head trauma, or any type of prolonged seizure activity, he says.

When a brain is injured, be it human or animal, it can heal and appear to be fine for a few months, Buckmaster explained. But in some cases, after those initial months, epilepsy will set in and cause seizures.  It is this latent period between the injury and the seizures that Buckmaster thinks is the key to discovering new treatments. 

Buckmaster is using rats that have suffered brain trauma to observe the changes that occur in the brain after there is an injury.  His goal is to discover the exact changes that occur in the brain between the time of the injury and the onset of epilepsy, which he hopes will bring researchers closer to discovering a cure, or at least a preventative treatment.

Buckmaster has made some significant findings with regard to the brain activity that seems to bring about epilepsy.  He is looking at a portion of the brain called the hippocampus, and has determined a specific part – the dentate gyrus – that shows the most dramatic changes during the latent period after a brain injury.  He has identified two cell types that seem particularly vulnerable during this time period. These two cell types, mossy cells and somatostatin-immunoreactive interneurons, are found in the hilus of the dentate gyrus.  These cells tend to die, while the rest usually survive after an injury.  By studying the consequences of the death of these two types of cells, Buckmaster is hoping to discern whether or not cell death itself is the direct cause of the seizures.

A critical aide to his research was his opportunity to do post-doctoral training in a lab that specialized in the hippocampus – the area of the brain Buckmaster continues to study.  He attributes that opportunity to the receipt of his Career Award in the Biomedical Sciences.

“[The award] allowed me to finish my post-doctoral training and get experience in a really good lab that specializes in the anatomy of the hippocampus,” Buckmaster said.  The award provided the funds to do the experiments needed to establish his career, and was also critical in finding a faculty position, he added.

In the past year, Buckmaster has received two RO1 grants from the National Institutes of Health.  He says he has established enough credibility as an independent investigator now to feel confident of continuing his research after his career award ends.

Questions for Dr. Paul Buckmaster:

Name:  Paul Buckmaster, D.V.M., Ph.D.
Recipient:  1996 Career Award in the Biomedical Sciences
Affiliation:  Assistant Professor, Stanford University

How did you first discover you wanted to be a scientist?

Hard to say, because it was early and gradual.  An experience that certainly was influential was the National Science Foundation's Student Science Training Program during a summer in high school.

Why did you choose to enter your particular field of study?

Fascination with the brain and with differences between species.

What has your BWF grant meant for your research?

It has tremendously facilitated my research in numerous ways:  by providing direct financial support for my research program and by helping me obtain postdoctoral training, other funding, and a faculty position.

What is the best thing about your job?

The ability to independently pursue questions that I care very much about.

What is your philosophy with respect to your research?

Must respect the truth.  Our biggest limitations are conceptual, not technical.

What kind of advice would you give a scientist just entering academic research?

Don't do it unless you really want it, and if you really want it, then nothing else will do.

What area of science is in most need of new researchers?

Genomics, I think.

If you had unlimited resources, what one big scientific question would you pursue?

How do brains evolve?

What do you do for fun?

My wife and I take our dogs to the beach.

What do you plan to do when you retire?

I'm doing it.

What is the best book you ever read?

The Civil War, by Shelby Foote.

-- This story was written by Megan Butler, Communications Intern