Prosper N’Gouemo: Tracing the Pathways to Seizures
“I am interested in the basic mechanisms of epilepsy, and the neurobiology of alcohol withdrawal seizures,” says Prosper N’Gouemo, Ph.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at GUMC.
The most common kind of seizure that you see in the emergency room is caused by chronic alcohol intoxication and its withdrawal, he says. Without treatment, these seizures can be fatal.
N’Gouemo’s research has led to new findings about the underlying causes of alcohol seizures, specifically regarding the flow of calcium into the brain cells by way of voltage-gated calcium channels and intracellular calcium release channels. The result of this work may lead to newer, more effective treatments for alcoholism and alcohol withdrawal syndrome.
The history of alcohol and mankind goes back at least 10,000 years, yet we are just beginning to learn precisely what alcohol does to brain cells. The story of N’Gouemo’s involvement in this research is an interesting journey of friendship, generosity, and hard work. The Georgetown University Medical Center honored N’Gouemo for his efforts with the GUMC Research Recognition Award at the Fourth Annual GUMC Convocation.
Prosper N’Gouemo was born in Dolisie, the third largest city in Republic of the Congo. He attributes his first interest in science to family members in the medical field, particularly his brother Lucien, who was a surgeon and also interested in anesthesiology. N’Gouemo says, “my brother gave me my first lecture on sodium channels when explaining how anesthetics worked in the brain.” While studying physiology at a French university, he attended a seminar featuring Dr. Michel Baldy-Moulinier, professor of Neurology and Chair of Clinical Neurophysiology at the University of Montpelier School of Medicine, a leading expert in epilepsy. Dr. Baldy-Moulinier explained epilepsy as a state of hyper-physiology.
“I was interested in the brain and applied neurophysiology,” says N’Gouemo, “so I contacted Dr. Baldy-Mouliner to find out if I could come and help in the lab, and he said, ‘O.K., you say you are interested, you can come and get started.’” He worked both in the lab doing research and at the department of Clinical Neurophysiology at the University Hospital Guy-de-Chauliac where he was recording electroencephalograms (EEGs) in patients with various neurological diseases including epilepsy.
The work of the lab was aimed at understanding the networks of seizure, relating injury in different areas of the brain to resulting epilepsies, N’Gouemo explains. N’Gouemo believes that his clinical experience “consolidates my commitment to epilepsy research.”
“Then by reading the literature, I found out that in the U.S. there is this Dr. Faingold who has an approach that was quite unique allowing him to view single neuron activity during the different phases of a seizure episode. That idea attracted me.”
The Move to the U.S.
Carl Faingold, Ph.D., professor and chair of the department of pharmacology at the Southern Illinois University (SIU) School of Medicine, invited N’Gouemo to come to the U.S. and work with him. “When I was at SIU, we found for example that in epilepsy you get this burst firing in the neuron, and the idea at that time was that this was due to massive entry of calcium into the neuron. I wanted to look at this in detail, but SIU didn’t have the technology to do this.”
To study single ion channels in a cell, N’Gouemo needed access to a patch clamp technique, a new and innovative approach that subsequently won its inventors, Erwin Neher and Bert Sakmann, the 1991 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. “So I asked Dr. Ann Rittenhouse at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine if I could come to her lab and learn the technique.” She said yes, and N’Gouemo spent time micromanipulating neurons to tease out the electrophysiology of calcium channel activity during seizures.
Washington, D.C. and Georgetown – New Collaborations
Then he wanted to work with someone who was well known in the field of the calcium channel, or a neurobiologist. There was one here at Georgetown University. His name was Dr. Stefano Vicini, and N’Gouemo came to see him. Vicini had done some work with GABA, and quickly recommended that he meet someone at Georgetown doing work in calcium channels, introducing N’Gouemo to Dr. Martin Morad.
Morad, who studies ion channels in cardiac tissue, was instrumental in bringing N’Gouemo to GUMC. They collaborated and co-authored papers together with Faingold and Robert Yasuda, Ph.D., who is assistant professor in the department of pharmacology and physiology at GUMC. Yasuda studies the effects of ethanol on glutamate receptors.
Morad left Georgetown in 2008 to assume an endowed chair at the University of South Carolina.
At a professional conference, N’Gouemo, seeking new collaboration, met Dr. David Lovinger, Ph.D., Chief of Laboratory for Integrative Science at the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “This was at a time when I was thinking a lot about fetal alcohol syndrome,” says N’Gouemo. “So I contacted him, and he said, ‘O.K., since you are interested in alcohol, you can come work with me.” That was the beginning of his ongoing collaboration with Dr. Lovinger to decipher the role of calcium channels and associated signaling in the pathophysiology of seizures seen in neonates suffering from the fetal alcohol syndrome. N’Gouemo says, “Dave is truly a friend, the one that does not hesitate to help when you are experiencing difficult times.”
To this day, he keeps in touch with Drs. Rittenhouse, Baldy-Moulinier, Morad and Faingold by e-mail. Dr. Faingold, says N’Gouemo, “is my friend—whenever he is here in D.C. for a meeting, or when we met at scientific meetings, we have lunch together.” When he travels to Southern France, he always visits his lab supervisors and labmates.
When asked how he has managed throughout his career to create so many propitious relationships with leading investigators, he says, “I believe that there is always a Good Samaritan out there, someone who will help. You just have to do your work and find out the match and common interest, and then people will open the door.”
By Frank Reider, GUMC Communications