Neuropsychology award

Ella Rhodes reports.

Neuropsychologist Dr Sallie Baxendale (UCL) has been presented with the Arthur Benton Award by the International Neuropsychological Society for her work over the last 25 years. The award, which comes around only once every seven years, marked the first time epilepsy research had been recognised in this way.

Since 1992 Baxendale has worked in the epilepsy surgery programme at the National Hospital for Neurology in London, where her research aims to answer questions that crop up in everyday clinical practice. ‘Epilepsy surgery is an elective procedure, and it is vital that people make an informed decision about the risks and benefits of the operation before they proceed. As clinicians, we have a duty to provide them with as accurate information as possible to help them make this decision. Much of my research has been dedicated to improving the accuracy of this information with respect to predicting the cognitive risks of the procedure and reducing these risks wherever possible.’  

Baxendale told me she has always been interested in brain–behaviour relationships and the ease with which normal patterns of behaviour can become disrupted – epilepsy being a perfect example of this. ‘One minute someone can be interacting in the world normally, the next they may have no control over their thoughts, movements or sensations. The brain then recognises that something has gone wrong and resets itself. It’s unsurprising that living with such an unpredictable condition can be very challenging. Working with people with who have epilepsy affords unique opportunities to both study brain–behaviour relationships and make a difference to the lives of people who suffer seizures.’

Among her many achievements Baxendale said being appointed to the editorial boards of Epilepsia and Epilepsy and Behaviour, were particular highlights as well as her book Coping with Memory Problems being selected for the Books on Prescription scheme in 2015. ‘This meant that a copy has been placed in every public library, and GPs were encouraged to ‘prescribe’ the book to suitable patients. Primarily written for the worried well, the book explains how memory works and why people experience the memory problems they do. The book originated from my clinical experience in assessing people who were so worried about ordinary memory lapses. I wanted to provide some reassurance about what was normal and some guidance about what do if more serious memory problems started to develop.’

Last year Baxendale was appointed as Chair of the International League Against Epilepsy (ILAE) Task Force. The ILAE is a worldwide association of health professionals and scientists working in epilepsy that works to ensure care providers, patients, governments and the public have access to educational and research resources to understand, diagnose and treat people with epilepsy.

Baxendale said that in this role she is committed to the dissemination of knowledge about evidence-based practice in the diagnosis and treatment of epilepsy. ‘In addition to the publication of authoritative, evidence-based guidelines, we are planning further introductory and advanced courses and conferences around the world, including Vietnam and Uganda next year. There is so much that can be done to improve the lives of people with epilepsy worldwide. Whilst resources will always be an issue, education also plays a big role, and I am optimistic that we can really make significant inroads into increasing understanding of this challenging condition, among both clinicians and the public alike.’

In her own research Baxendale said she was excited to further investigate the impact of lifestyle factors on cognitive function in epilepsy. Having previously shown that obesity can have a significant detrimental impact on cognitive function in this group she wants to see if these impairments can be reversed following lifestyle changes and weight loss. ‘It’s a challenging study, but one that could really yield tangible results in terms of cognitive improvements, the holy grail in neuropsychological research!’ 

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