National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

What is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a brain disorder in which clusters of nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain sometimes signal abnormally. In epilepsy, the normal pattern of neuronal activity becomes disturbed, causing strange sensations, emotions, and behavior or sometimes convulsions, muscle spasms, and loss of consciousness. Epilepsy is a disorder with many possible causes. Anything that disturbs the normal pattern of neuron activity - from illness to brain damage to abnormal brain development - can lead to seizures. Epilepsy may develop because of an abnormality in brain wiring, an imbalance of nerve signaling chemicals called neurotransmitters, or some combination of these factors. Having a seizure does not necessarily mean that a person has epilepsy. Only when a person has had two or more seizures is he or she considered to have epilepsy. EEGs and brain scans are common diagnostic test for epilepsy.

Is there any treatment?

Once epilepsy is diagnosed, it is important to begin treatment as soon as possible. For about 80 percent of those diagnosed with epilepsy, seizures can be controlled with modern medicines and surgical techniques. Some antiepiletic drugs can interfere with the effectiveness of oral contraceptives. In 1997, the FDA approved the vagus nerve stimulator for use in people with seizures that are not well-controlled by medication.

What is the prognosis?

Most people with epilepsy lead outwardly normal lives. While epilepsy cannot currently be cured, for some people it does eventually go away. Most seizures do not cause brain damage. It is not uncommon for people with epilepsy, especially children, to develop behavioral and emotional problems, sometimes the consequence of embarrassment and frustration or bullying, teasing, or avoidance in school and other social setting. For many people with epilepsy, the risk of seizures restricts their independence (some states refuse drivers licenses to people with epilepsy) and recreational activities. People with epilepsy are at special risk for two life-threatening conditions: status epilepticus and sudden unexplained death. Most women with epilepsy can become pregnant, but they should discuss their epilepsy and the medications they are taking with their doctors. Women with epilepsy have a 90 percent or better chance of having a normal, healthy baby.


What research is being done?

Scientists are studying potential antiepileptic drugs with goal of enhancing treatment for epilepsy. Scientists continue to study how neurotransmitters interact with brain cells to control nerve firing and how non-neuronal cells in the brain contribute to seizures. One of the most-studied neurotransmitters is GABA, or gamma-aminobutryic acid. Researchers are working to identify genes that may influence epilepsy. This information may allow doctors to prevent epilepsy or to predict which treatments will be most beneficial. Doctors are now experimenting with several new types of therapies for epilepsy, including transplanting fetal pig neurons into the brains of patients to learn whether cell transplants can help control seizures, transplanting stem cells, and using a device that could predict seizures up to 3 minutes before they begin. Researchers are continually improving MRI and other brain scans. Studies have show that in some case, children may experience fewer seizures if they maintain a strict diet - called the ketogenic diet - rich in fats and low in carbohydrates.


Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy (CURE)
730 N. Franklin
Suite 404
Chicago, IL 60610
[email protected]
Tel: 312-255-1801
Fax: 312-255-1809

Epilepsy Foundation
4351 Garden City Drive
Suite 500
Landover, MD 20785-7223
[email protected]
Tel: 301-459-3700 800-EFA-1000 (332-1000)
Fax: 301-577-2684

Epilepsy Institute
257 Park Avenue South
New York, NY 10010
[email protected]
Tel: 212-677-8550
Fax: 212-677-5825

Parents Against Childhood Epilepsy (PACE)
7 East 85th Street
Suite A3
New York, NY 10028
[email protected]
Tel: 212-665-PACE (7223)
Fax: 212-327-3075

Family Caregiver Alliance/ National Center on Caregiving
180 Montgomery Street
Suite 1100
San Francisco, CA 94104
[email protected]
Tel: 415-434-3388 800-445-8106
Fax: 415-434-3508

National Council on Patient Information and Education
4915 St. Elmo Avenue
Suite 505
Bethesda, MD 20814-6082
[email protected]
Tel: 301-656-8565
Fax: 301-656-4464

National Family Caregivers Association
10400 Connecticut Avenue
Suite 500
Kensington, MD 20895-3944
[email protected]
Tel: 301-942-6430 800-896-3650
Fax: 301-942-2302

National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD)
P.O. Box 1968
(55 Kenosia Avenue)
Danbury, CT 06813-1968
[email protected]
Tel: 203-744-0100 Voice Mail 800-999-NORD (6673)
Fax: 203-798-2291

IRSA (International RadioSurgery Association)
P.O. Box 5186
Harrisburg, PA 17110
[email protected]
Tel: 717-260-9808
Fax: 717-260-9809

Charlie Foundation to Help Cure Pediatric Epilepsy
1223 Wilshire Blvd.
Suite #815
Santa Monica, CA 90403
[email protected]
Tel: 800-FOR-KETO (367-5386) 310-395-6751
Fax: 310-393-1978

Epilepsy Therapy Development Project
11921 Freedom Drive
Suite 730
Reston, VA 20190
Tel: 703-437-4250
Fax: 703-437-4288

Antiepileptic Drug Pregnancy Registry
MGH East, CNY-149, 10th Floor
149 13th Street
Charlestown, MA 02129-2000
[email protected]
Tel: 888-AED-AED4 (233-2334)
Fax: 617-724-8307


Related NINDS Publications and Information

  • Epilepsy: Hope Through Research
Information booklet on seizures, seizure disorders, and epilepsy compiled by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).
  • NINDS Febrile Seizures Information Page
    Febrile Seizures information sheet compiled by NINDS.
  • Febrile Seizures Fact Sheet
    Febrile seizures fact sheet compiled by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)
  • NINDS Infantile Spasms Information Page
    Infantile spasms (West Syndrome) information sheet compiled by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).
  • NINDS Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome Information Page
    Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome information sheet compiled by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).
  • Neurological Diagnostic Tests and Procedures
    Fact sheet on neurological diagnosis and testing, prepared by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).
  • Patients with Seizures Sought for Studies
    Lay-language descriptions of new program announcements and clinical trials seeking patient volunteers.
  • Epilepsy Research Web
    Epilepsy Research Web
  • White House-Initiated Conference on Epilepsy
    Summary of a White House-initiated conference, "Curing Epilepsy,", March 30-31, 2000.
  • Electrical Activity Alters Neurotransmitter Production in Frogs During Development
    August 2004 news article about a study showing that changing neurons'; electrical activity changes the neurotransmitters they produce.
  • Promising Gene Therapy Tool May Suppress Epileptic Seizures
    November 2003 news summary on an experimental gene therapy that might be useful for treating partial seizures.
  • Drug-Resistant Seizures Often Take Years to Develop
    January 2003 press release on new findings regarding the prognosis of partial epilepsy.
  • Gene Linked to Epilepsy With Auditory Features
    February 2002 news summary on a gene for familial epilepsy with auditory features.
  • Safe Effective Treatment to Stop Seizures Can Be Delivered Outside of the Hospital
    August 2001 news release on a finding that status epilepticus can be safely treated by paramedics using benzodiazepine drugs.
  • Workshop on Nonepileptic Seizures
    Workshop on Nonepileptic Seizures, Sponsored by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the American Epilepsy Society
  • Imaging Markers of Epileptogenesis: New Research Directions
    Imaging Markers of Epileptogenesis: New Research Directions
  • DNA Microarrays and Epilepsy Research
    DNA Microarrays and Epilepsy Research
  • Health Disparities in Epilepsy Planning Panel
    Summary of Health Disparities in Epilepsy Planning Panel-- November 13, 2002.
  • Models II: Identification and Characterization of Animal Models of Human Therapy Resistance and Epileptogenesis
    Models II: Identification and Characterization of Animal Models of Human Therapy Resistance and Epileptogenesis
  • Models for Epilepsy & Epileptogenesis
    Workshop Summary: Models for Epilepsy & Epileptogenesis
  • Molecular Analysis of Complex Genetic Epilepsies
    Summary of a workshop on molecular analysis of complex genetic epilepsies held January 31 - February 1, 2002.
  • Workshop on Antiepileptic Drug (AED) Monotherapy Indication
    A workshop attempt to reach consensus on the best method to obtain FDA approval for monotherapy labeling for antiepileptic drugs (AEDs)

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