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What is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a brain disorder that causes people to have recurring seizures. The seizures happen when clusters of nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain send out the wrong signals. People may have strange sensations and emotions or behave strangely, or they may have violent muscle spasms or lose consciousness. Epilepsy has many possible causes, including illness, brain injury and abnormal brain development, but in many cases, the cause is unknown.

Common causes of epilepsy include:

  • Stroke
  • Dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Infections, including brain abscess, meningitis, encephalitis and AIDS
  • Brain problems that are present at birth (congenital brain defects)
  • Brain injury that occurs during or near birth
  • Metabolism disorders present at birth (such as phenylketonuria)
  • Brain tumors
  • Abnormal blood vessels in the brain
  • Other illness that damage or destroy brain tissue
  • Use of certain medications and illegal drugs

 

Diagnosis

Epilepsy is a complex condition that may arise from a variety of underlying reasons. We take into consideration a patient’s complete medical history as well as their life experiences. The following exams and tests are used to help us make an accurate diagnosis.

Treatments

Each patient’s treatment plan is highly personalized. Our primary goal is to maximize your overall quality of life through managing the disease.

Drug therapy
Medication is typically the best treatment for seizures. Identifying the right dosage may take several months. During this time, more frequent sampling of your blood may occur to monitor your drug levels. The most important rule for anyone taking medications is to never stop taking the medication or change the dosage without the direction of your doctor. Your dosage is determined based on other medical conditions, medicines, your age, your weight, your sex and other factors. If you experience side effects from your medication, contact your physician as soon as possible. Our center is also involved in research to understand the effectiveness of new medications. If you qualify, we may offer you the chance to participate in a clinical trial.

Surgery
Most patients with epilepsy don’t require surgery. However, patients who don’t respond well to medications and who have a diminished quality of life from their disorder may be considered for surgery. If we determine that you are a good candidate for surgery, we may ask you to take additional tests. Some of these tests may require a brief stay in the hospital. These tests include:

Wada test is a test that involves putting a small amount of an anesthetic into one side of your brain to localize which brain areas are most important for speech and memory. This assists our physicians with a better understanding of your brain function so they can choose a surgical approach that helps to minimize any speech or memory loss you may experience after surgery and will help in deciding whether surgery is appropriate for you.

Subdural grid electrocorticography is a procedure when electrodes are placed directly on the exposed surface of your brain to record electrical activity. Once we identify the area of the brain that is causing the seizure, we can treat your condition more precisely.

Depth electrodes involves placing small electrodes into the brain tissue to detect areas that are causing seizures.

There are several advanced options for patients who are considered to be good candidates for brain surgery, including these procedures:

Vagus nerve stimulator is a treatment designed to prevent seizures by sending regular electrical energy to the brain through the vagus nerve. During this procedure, a device about the size of a silver dollar is implanted under the skin along the outer side of the chest and a wire in threaded to the vagus nerve in your neck.

NeuroPace is the newest innovation in epilepsy treatment. During this surgical procedure, an FDA-approved device is implanted onto the brain’s surface. It will detect abnormal activity then send electrical impulses to the abnormal brain area in an effort to help prevent the seizure from occurring.

Research

The AHN Neuroscience Institute is a national leader in epilepsy research. Our studies have focused on epilepsy in the elderly, efficacy and tolerability of antiepileptic drugs, the effects of medical therapy on brain hormone function, creating a model to study memory, language and emotional control, and new treatments.

Resources

Receiving an epilepsy diagnosis and the subsequent treatment decisions can take an emotional toll on you. We want to support you in every way possible by providing you and your family with services and resources to help manage every aspect of your health. We work closely with the Epilepsy Foundation of Western Pennsylvania, which provides educational programs, support groups, career counseling and advocacy.