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Epilepsy / Seizure Disorders

There are many forms of epilepsy, each with its own characteristic symptoms. Whatever the form, the condition is caused by a problem in communication between the brain's nerve cells. Normally, such cells communicate with one another by sending tiny electrical signals back and forth.

For someone with epilepsy, the signals from one group of nerve cells occasionally become too strong, so strong in fact that they overwhelm the neighboring parts of the brain. It is this sudden, excessive electrical discharge that causes the basic symptom of epilepsy, which is called an epileptic seizure, fit, or convulsion.

It is not yet known what causes the brain's communication system to misfire in this fashion, or why such events recur in some people. Exhaustive research, including the testing of great numbers of epileptics, has shown that roughly two out of three epileptics have no identifiable structural abnormality in the brain, that is, there is nothing that is visibly wrong.

The epilepsy of the remaining one-third can generally be traced back to an underlying problem such as brain damage at birth, severe head injury or brain-tissue infection. Occasionally the condition may be caused by a brain tumor. This is especially likely when epilepsy appears for the first time in adulthood.

Drug therapy is by far the most often used and is almost always the method tried first. Sixteen medications to prevent epileptic seizures are currently approved for use in the U.S., and of these, the following six are used most frequently: phenytoin (Dilantin), phenobarbital, ethosuximide (Zarontin), primidone (Mysoline), valproic acid (Depakene) and carbamazepine (Tegretol). When taken regularly as prescribed, medication can prevent seizures in about half of all cases and produce improvement in about 30 percent of all cases.