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Epilepsy, a physical condition caused by sudden, brief changes in how the brain works, is estimated to affect one percent of the U.S. population--about 2.5 million people. In about half of all cases no cause can be found, but head injuries, brain tumors, lead poisoning, problems in brain development before birth, and certain genetic and infectious illnesses can all cause epilepsy.

Epilepsy occurs when nerve cells in the brain fire electrical impulses at a rate of up to four times higher than normal. This causes a sort of electrical storm in the brain, known as a seizure. A pattern of repeated seizures is referred to as epilepsy. Medication controls seizures for the majority of patients, who are otherwise healthy and able to live full and productive lives. On the other hand, at least 200,000 Americans have seizures more than once a month. Their lives are devastated by frequent, uncontrollable seizures or associated disabilities.

This past decade has seen a dramatic increase in our knowledge about epilepsy, but there remains much tragedy in the lives of many people with the disorder. To brighten tomorrow's outlook for those who must live with seizures, the epilepsy research community continues to concentrate its efforts on:

  • Finding the causes of epilepsy. Basic research aims to identify viral, genetic, or other factors that cause epilepsy. These findings provide the basis for developing new and improved methods of prevention and therapy.
  • Improving diagnostics. Scientists are using promising new technologies such as positron emission tomography (PET) and magnetoencephalography to diagnose epilepsy and pinpoint seizure location.
  • Developing new drugs. The goal of modern neurological research is to develop safe, well-tolerated drugs that control seizures. Basic research has brought some of the now more commonly prescribed anticonvulsant drugs to the market. Scientists are also developing ways to test new and better drugs in patients.
  • Improving and developing new surgical techniques. This form of treatment, performed at epilepsy clinical research centers, is now an option for more people with epilepsy, including children. For patients whose seizures cannot be controlled with drugs, surgery can turn the dream of a seizure-free life into a reality. Improved technology has made it possible to identify more accurately where seizures originate in the brain and to what extent surgery may affect vital functions, such as smell and speech. As a result, investigators estimate that 2,000 to 5,000 new patients in the United States might be suitable for surgery each year.

Hope for better treatments, a cure, and, ultimately, prevention of epilepsy lies in neurological research. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), one of the 17 National Institutes of Health (NIH) located in Bethesda, Maryland, is the nation's largest supporter of research on the brain and nervous system and a lead agency for the congressionally designated Decade of the Brain. The Institute conducts and supports a broad program of basic and clinical investigations aimed at increasing our understanding of more than 600 neurological disorders, including epilepsy. The Institute also studies the structures, activities, and vulnerabilities of the human brain. Most NINDS-supported research is conducted by scientists at public and private institutions, such as universities, medical schools, and hospitals.

Scientists in the Institute's laboratories and clinics also conduct a wide range of research studies. At the Institute's Bethesda, Maryland facilities, patients with epilepsy volunteer for extensive testing using exciting, new imaging technologies, participate in trials of new anticonvulsant medications, or undergo surgical treatment.

An active public information program provides physicians, patients, and the public with educational materials on a number of neurological disorders. Additional information about epilepsy as well as information on other neurological disorders is available from the Office of Scientific and Health Reports at http://www.ninds.nih.gov/organiz/oshr/oshr.htm.

Information provided by NIH.