Epilepsy is the most common neurological disorder among people in the United States. Around 200,000 Americans are diagnosed each year, and it is estimated to affect one percent of the population. It is a seizure disorder; people with epilepsy suffer periodic bouts of abnormally high brain activity. Depending on the severity, frequency, and duration of these seizures, the disease can range from annoying, through something to be watched but that is manageable, all the way up to a truly debilitating illness requiring constant care. Three fourths of cases of epilepsy can be treated with medication.
There are a variety of causes for epilepsy. For some people, heredity seems to play a role, particularly when the disease is congenital. Sometimes people who have had strokes get brain damage that leads to epilepsy. Head trauma can have a similar effect, with people who have had concussions or otherwise suffered blows to the head starting to get seizures afterward. Meningitis and other brain infections can also have this result. Most people with epilepsy who didn’t have the disease as children or get it from brain damage as adults are diagnosed after age 60; in these cases, there appears to be a link with dementia.
While epilepsy can often be controlled with medication, the medications used have noticeable side effects, which can include dizziness, fatigue, weakness, irritability, and anxiety, in as many as 90 percent of people who are taking them. However, new techniques are helping to better control the disease, without side effects that can themselves be a serious blow to quality of life.
One technique uses an implantable neurostimulation device to stabilize abnormal electrical activity in the brain. This abnormal activity is what is experienced by the patient as a seizure. The implant detects this activity and creates its own electrical impulses, which counter the seizure. Researchers are also investigating using stem cells to create new neurons for patients with certain forms of epilepsy. If successful in humans—the technique has been demonstrated to be effective in laboratory animals—the stem-cell neurons could be used to replace flawed neurons connected with epilepsy in these patients.