What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is the name given to a condition where a person has recurrent, unprovoked seizures.

Every action in the human body is controlled by coordinated electrical impulses within a network of nerve cells. When nerve impulses in the brain misfire, incorrect information is transmitted resulting in interference in consciousness, thoughts and actions.

There are more than 40 types of epilepsy, which are divided into two groups according to the site of seizure onset. Partial, or focal, seizures begin in a specific region of the brain and predominantly impact parts of the body controlled by the affected area. Generalised seizures begin diffusely in the brain. There is a wide range of seizure symptoms depending on whether they are generalised or focal and where in the brain the seizure starts.

The reason why epilepsy develops is not fully understood. Someone with epilepsy may also have trigger factors that lead to seizures – these include sleep deprivation and excessive alcohol. People with epilepsy are encouraged to keep a seizure diary, to determine whether specific triggers can be identified.

Epilepsy facts

  • One in 10 people living in Australia will experience a seizure in their lifetime, with 3-4 per cent being diagnosed with epilepsy
  • Traumatic brain injury, meningitis, lack of oxygen during birth and stroke can all lead to epilepsy, but the cause is unknown in half all cases
  • 70 per cent of epilepsy cases are controlled with medication
  • Epilepsy can be diagnosed at any age, but is most prevalent over the age of 55.

Source: Epilepsy Australia

QBI research

Although neuroscientists first recognised epilepsy as a medical condition more than a century ago, they are yet to determine why seizures occur. Researchers at the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) are committed to finding both the molecular mechanisms and the causes of the condition.

In the mid-1990s Dr Robyn Wallace (a former QBI researcher) made the first discovery of a gene linked to generalised epilepsy. Since then she and her team have successfully identified several other epilepsy genes. Further, the researchers have mapped two families with myoclonic epilepsy to specific chromosomal regions and they are now screening candidate genes from these regions to identify the underlying disease-causing mutations.

“Identifying the genes involved in familial epilepsies will further our understanding of why nerve cells misfire in people with seizures. The genes identified will also provide rational targets for the development of new antiepileptic drugs,” Dr Wallace said.

QBI researchers are currently using functional magnetic resonance imaging to develop tasks that probe specific functional components of the memory system. Eventually these tests will be used on patients with intractable temporal lobe epilepsy to aid pre-surgical assessment of functional anatomy and inform predictions of post-operative cognitive outcomes.

Professor David Reutens explained: “One of the most feared complications of epilepsy surgery is devastating memory loss. By better understanding how the memory system works, this research may help surgeons to avoid this complication.”

Clinical studies at QBI

As a research-specific institute, QBI undertakes pre-clinical and clinical studies. Requests for volunteers in human trials are made through our regular newsletter (to receive this, please contact us at qbi@uq.edu.au). If you would like more information about epilepsy, or require support, please contact Epilepsy Queensland on +61 7 3435 5000 or Epilepsy Action on 1300 37 45 37