The effects of epilepsy, a group of neurological diseases characterized by seizures, can be brief or long lasting. For years, physicians and scientists didn’t exactly understand how epilepsy impacted the brain and the body, or even learning disabilities, in epilepsy patients.
However, a recent NYU Langone Medical Center study has helped shed new light on why epilepsy impacts the brain the way it does. The study, published in Nature Medicine, stated that in between seizures “brain cells in epileptic patients send signals that make ‘empty memories’” causing learning disabilities in over 40% of patients. Patients told doctors that those cognitive problems actually impacted their lives just as much as the seizures, but doctors had no way to cure those problems beyond offering them seizure control treatments.
How Seizures May Disrupt Memory Consolidation
Two areas of the brain—the hippocampus and the cortex-- were the focus of this study. Those two regions exchanged signals, converting each day’s experiences into permanent memories. The epileptic signals disrupt these signals, and commands coming from the hippocampus process these experiences not into permanent memory consolidation but as meaningless commands that must be processed like regular memories. The study showed that due to experiencing those mixed signals, rats that before could easily find where they stored water, struggled after experiencing those epileptic signals.
New Epilepsy Treatment Options
Once this study concluded, researchers determined that because there was a tens of milliseconds delay between hippocampus signals and the response from the cortex, there was a time window where an implanted device might interrupt disease related signals. They’ve launched a design effort to find out how to make this work.
To help ease the effects of partial onset seizures, epilepsy patients can also take eslicarbazepine tablets, also called Aptiom. When added to other anti-seizure medicines, Aptiom was able to lower the frequency of partial onset seizures. Eslicarbazepine works by binding the voltage-gate sodium ion channels, which are in an inactivated state that a brain signal passes through and spreads rapidly firing neurons to resting and open states.
Eslicarbazepine has also been found to have less physical and cognitive side effects compared to other epilepsy drugs like carbamazepine and oxcarbazepine. Some clinicians say Aptiom could replace some of the more traditional drugs that are currently prescribed for epilepsy.
Epilepsy patients who do not respond to traditional epilepsy medication have other options that could work for treating seizures. Lamotrigine can be a good option for those patients who are intolerant of other antiepileptic drugs, though it contains more significant side effects. Carbamazepine (mentioned earlier) reduces the electrical impulses that cause seizures, though sometimes patients complain of a life-threatening rash as a result of taking the medication. Ethosuximide is used to treat absence seizures by disrupting the pathways of unwanted seizures. For more information about epilepsy medications, visit our Epilepsy Condition Page.