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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
Information provided by NIH.