Explainer: What is epilepsy


Associate Professor Lata Vadlamudi

Associate Professor Lata Vadlamudi, a neurologist and researcher at the UQ Centre for Clinical Research, talks to us about epilepsy; what it is, the causes and potential treatments.  

I’ve been a researcher in the field of epilepsy for over 15 years and a neurologist in clinical practice for almost 20 years. My research is focused on answering two of the most difficult questions that neurologists struggle to answer in the epilepsy clinic – ‘What is the cause of my epilepsy’ and ‘How can my epilepsy be treated?’ I’ll start by explaining what epilepsy is.

Epilepsy is a common neurological disorder that can affect people of all ages, marked by the tendency of repeated seizures. It’s understood around one in 26 people will suffer from epilepsy during their lifetime. A seizure is a sudden disturbance of the electrical activity in the brain, and this can lead to unpredictable effects on the body, such as confused thoughts and feelings or uncontrolled movements. Seizures can affect your whole body and can range from being very severe and dramatic to very subtle and hardly noticed by others. The type of seizure depends on where the disturbance starts in your brain, and there are more than 40 different types of seizures.

What is the cause of epilepsy?

It’s a very common question neurologists are asked, and one my research is focused on answering. The causes of epilepsy vary depending on the age when the seizures began. Around one-third of people have a clear cause, like a stroke, infection or an acquired brain injury. In the other two-thirds of people, the cause is unknown and genetics are likely to play a role.

How is epilepsy diagnosed? 

This involves taking a detailed history and performing a neurological examination. Further history, from a relative or someone else who has seen the seizures, is very valuable and can help make the diagnosis. Blood tests, an EEG (electroencephalogram), CT (computerised tomography) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) of your brain are often performed. In some cases, it can be difficult to make the diagnosis.

Is epilepsy genetic?

Family and twin studies have shown that genetics play a role in many types of epilepsies. The role of genetics varies and this depends on the type of epilepsy. The rapid advances in this field have increased the number of genes found to be linked with epilepsy. Further research into how changes to these genes can cause a seizure will help to improve treatments for epilepsy.

Can epilepsy be cured?

In a small proportion of people, surgery may be an option to potentially cure epilepsy. This involves removing part of the brain that has been shown to cause the seizures. This is only an option in particular types of epilepsy and is carefully considered after extensive testing and assessment.

Most patients are treated with medications, which treat the symptom (seizures) and not the disease. Around one-third of people with epilepsy are not well controlled with current medications. As we learn more about epilepsy, we hope that one day we will develop medications that can cure this disorder.

Learn more about Associate Professor Vadlamudi’s epilepsy research.


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