Experts discuss myths, tips for Epilepsy Awareness Month

Grace Dickens

It’s estimated one in 26 people will develop epilepsy at some point in their life, according to the Epilepsy Foundation. Still, there is very little known about epilepsy in terms of research and public awareness. In honor of National Epilepsy Awareness Month, UT experts discuss some important facts to consider.

Cells in the human body use electrical signals to communicate with each other, according to a study by Birkbeck University of London. When these electrical interactions in the brain go haywire, it can result in the involuntary movements or convulsions that characterize epilepsy, said Daniel Johnston, an epilepsy researcher at UT.

“Epilepsy is an electrical storm in the brain, where cells in the brain begin to fire and become hyperactive,” Johnston said. “They begin to produce this electrical storm that can move from one part of the brain to another.”

There are multiple forms of epilepsy, he added. Focal-onset epilepsy occurs in one specific part of the brain, while generalized epilepsy affects the entire brain.

Claire Griggs, a junior advertising major at UNT, experiences left temporal lobe seizures. She said she has focal onset awareness seizures, which means she can’t tell if or when she’s having a seizure. She can have many in a day, with each lasting up to a few seconds.

“(When) seizure activity was found … I was put on heavy medication,” Griggs said. “After one year, I was cleared, and now I live a pretty normal life. Epilepsy is such a fascinating, although in some cases debilitating, diagnosis.”

According to John Hopkins Medicine, an EEG, or electroencephalography, uses metal plates situated on the head to track electrical activity in the brain. They are typically used to diagnose epilepsy, but they can also detect abnormal brain waves after a stroke, head injury or tumor. Griggs said one was used to diagnose her seizures.

However, many types of epilepsy are untreatable with available medications, Johnston said.

“Certain forms of epilepsy don’t respond well to drugs on the market,” Johnston said. “We’re obviously missing something from these pharmaceuticals. If we could suppress the seizures, we (people with epilepsy) could also have less cognitive decline that is associated with seizures.”

Annissa Calvillo, program associate at the Epilepsy Foundation South & Central Texas, said education and awareness is one of the most important factors surrounding epilepsy. If someone with epilepsy has a seizure in public, you should keep the area clear, she said. Seizures should be timed, and if the episode exceeds five minutes, call 911.

“Most people who have epilepsy won’t really say out loud that they do until something happens,” Calvillo said. “What we encourage is education about what epilepsy is. A lot of times people just need to have the seizure, and they will be fine.”

There is a common myth with seizures that people will swallow their tongues, but Calvillo said this isn’t true. She said people with seizures should be kept on their side with something soft under their head and nothing in their mouths.

“(Epilepsy) is probably one of the most common things that neurologists see,” Johnston said.

For more information or questions about epilepsy, call or visit the Epilepsy Foundation South & Central Texas located on Research Boulevard in Austin.