The Epilepsy Center

What is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a neurological condition that affects more than 2 million Americans, with approximately 125,000 new cases diagnosed each year. Seizures, which are a symptom of epilepsy, occur when the brain's nerve cells emit uncontrolled electrical charges in one or several parts of the brain.

While epileptic seizures often are associated with a series of involuntary jerking movements, they can also cause a person to become suddenly confused, have staring spells, or use words or phrases inappropriately. The condition is managed for many people with antiepileptic drugs (AED); when drugs fail to sufficiently control the seizures, surgery may be an option. The Ketogenic Diet, a high-fat, low-carbohydrate food plan, is sometimes used with children to control seizures.

What Causes Epilepsy?

Epilepsy has no single cause, and in fact, many times there is no identifiable reason for the condition. Head injuries, deprivation of oxygen during birth, abnormal brain development, lead poisoning, interruption of blood flow to the brain (as in stroke or tumor), and viruses such as meningitis and encephalitis are possible causes of epilepsy. Genetic factors can play a role, the extent of which is not fully known. In some forms of epilepsy, an abnormality in specific genes has been identified, but generally, heredity may increase a person's susceptibility to develop epilepsy.

Epilepsy can also be secondary to another condition, such as cerebral palsy or a brain tumor. Some epilepsy-related syndromes include:

  • Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome: a severe form of epilepsy that typically affects children. In addition to seizures that often are uncontrollable by medication, the symptoms include behavioral problems and cognitive impairment.

  • Landau-Kleffner Syndrome: a syndrome in which young children lose their ability to speak and to understand others. Epileptic seizures are often, but not always, a symptom. Many times the seizures stop occurring when the child reaches adulthood. Some children have permanent language impairment, while others retain linguistic skills.

  • Rasmussen Syndrome: a progressive form of epilepsy that typically occurs during childhood. For reasons that are not known, the brain cells in one half of the brain become inflamed. Partial seizures occur frequently, causing rhythmic jerking of the arm and leg on opposite sides of the body.