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What is "epilepsy"?

Epilepsy Basics

Charles Ribak, Ph.D. (Professor of Anatomy and Neurobiology, UC Irvine School of Medicine) gives expert video advice on: What causes a seizure?; If I had a seizure, do I have epilepsy?; Are people with epilepsy more creative? and more...

What is "epilepsy"?

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder that is characterized by seizures, multiple seizures - not just one, but multiple seizures. Epilepsy has about as many different types as cancer has many different types.

What is a "seizure"?

Basically, a seizure is when there is a synchronised activity of brain cells and they're all firing at the same time. This is called a "burst of activity." Normally the brain works in a very desynchronised manner; little messages are going through different parts of the brain. However, when the entire brain or very large parts of the brain are synchronised in their activity, this is called a "seizure." Now, the seizure and how that relates to epilepsy is an interesting question. Epilepsy is a disorder characterised by multiple seizures; having one seizure is not epilepsy.

What causes a seizure?

There are many causes of seizures. There are seizures caused by a loud noise, for example; this is called audiogenic. I worked on a sample of rats that had audiogenic seizures. Bright lights sometimes will set off another type of seizure. This is called photosensitive epilepsy. There are stress-induced seizures. Sometimes we don't know what induces seizures. Sometimes when we are monitoring a patient in the hospital for epilepsy, we're monitoring them for 24 hours and we don't know what is triggering their seizures. So, there are certain types of epilepsy where we know what triggers the seizure and there are others where we don't know.

If I had a seizure, do I have epilepsy?

No, in fact, there are many more people who have a single seizure than people with epilepsy. A single seizure could be caused by drinking too much alcohol, for example, and then withdrawing. Sleep deprivation can cause a person to have a seizure. Some kind of a toxin may also cause a seizure. But as I mentioned earlier, one seizure is not epilepsy.

How common are seizures?

Seizures occur in roughly 3% of the population, Again 3% will have had a seizure once in their entire lifetime. In terms of epilepsy, people with epilepsy, it's around 1%. Maybe a little less than 1% of the population have epilepsy.

What is a "myoclonic" seizure?

A myoclonic seizure is a type of uncontrolled movement involving the same kind of clonic movement, this muscular clonic movement. We don't know whether it's an involuntary movement, almost like a nervous tic, or whether it's an actual seizure that is underlying this behavioral movement but the myoclonic seizure is not categorized as part of a type of epilepsy persay.

What are "partial" seizures?

Partial seizures are seizures that arise from a very localized region of the brain. These are the opposite types of seizures than the generalized seizures which involves the normal activity throughout the entire brain. So, partial seizure, then, arises from one particular portion of the brain. It's also called a focal or local. Now, there are two types of partial seizures; simple partial seizures and the complex partial seizures.

Are people with epilepsy more creative?

Certain epileptic people are more creative. There are some very good examples. Vincent Van Gogh, a very famous Dutch painter during the Impressionist Period, was thought to be an epileptic. Other people, such as Dostoevsky a very famous Russian writer was also considered to be an epileptic. So there are examples of people with epilepsy who have excelled in the arts and in literature.

Can a seizure or epilepsy cause permanent damage?

A single epileptic seizure probably will not cause much brain damage. There are volumes being written on this topic. Scientists who are studying epilepsy want to know whether seizures cause brain damage. With certain types of seizures this has been documented. However, with other types of seizures, there appears not to be any brain damage, and we don't know the underlying basis for the seizures that occur in that type of epilepsy.