Medical Research

Looking for A Solution to Epilepsy

Most people associate epilepsy with intense seizures and resulting loss of consciousness. But according to experts from the National Institutes of Health, most epilepsy may be hard to recognize. These little spells can be an early warning sign of epilepsy, a brain disorder that strikes an estimated 1 in 26 Americans at some point in their lives.

Even though it’s the fourth most common neurological disorder in the U.S. (behind migraine, stroke and Alzheimer’s), most people don’t know much about it. Most people know surprisingly little about epilepsy, even though it’s the nation’s 4th most common neurological disorder, after migraine, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease.

“Epilepsy can strike people of all ages, from the moment of birth—even in the delivery room—up to older ages,” says Dr. Jeffrey Noebels, an epilepsy expert at Baylor College of Medicine. The condition is most likely to first arise in children and in adults over age 60. “Most types of epilepsy last a lifetime, but some…can go away on their own,” Noebels adds.

Epilepsy has more than one cause. “Defects in genes are probably responsible for the largest fraction of epilepsy cases,” Noebels says. Scientists so far have linked more than 150 genes to epilepsy. “Other types of epilepsy can be acquired through trauma (such as head injury or stroke), infections, brain tumors, or other factors.”

Whether the seizures last for seconds or minutes, they are caused by from abnormal bursts of electrical activity in the brain. That in turn triggers jerky movements, falls, fainting or even strange emotions.

The condition is sometimes called a spectrum disorder, because there are many kinds of seizures. At one end of the spectrum, a patient can have occasional seizures. Other people have literally hundreds of seizures per day.

Subtle seizures (called partial or focal) can cause hallucinations or feelings of déjà vu. “These little spells or seizures can sometimes occur for years before they’re recognized as a problem and diagnosed as epilepsy,” says Dr. Jacqueline French, who specializes in epilepsy treatment at the New York University Langone Medical Center. “They can be little spells of confusion, little spells of panic, or feeling like the world doesn’t look real to you.”

Partial seizures affect particular areas of the brain, but untreated they can become more serious and affect the whole brain. It’s crucial to get treatment as soon as possible.  “If you notice a repeating pattern of unusual behaviors or strange sensations that last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, be sure to mention it to your doctor or pediatrician,” French says.