Epilepsy is a central nervous system disorder that affects about 65 million people around the world. More than two million of those people are in the United States.
Epilepsy occurs when there is abnormal electrical activity in the brain. Normally, brain cells communicate by sending electrical signals in a systematic pattern. However, with epilepsy the pattern is disrupted. The signals are sporadic and abnormal, resulting in seizures. These ‘electrical storms’ may be within a specific part of the brain or may be more generalized.
During seizures, neurons fire faster than normal, about 500 times per second, causing involuntary movements and violent muscle spasms. The patient may stare blankly for a few moments. Seizures are a part of epilepsy, but not all seizures are caused by epilepsy.
Generalized and partial (focal) are two categories of seizures. A generalized seizure affects the entire cerebral cortex, which is the outer portion of the brain. The most common type of generalized seizure is the grand-mal seizure. The patient collapses, becomes unconscious and has uncontrolled muscle spasms for about a minute.
During a partial (focal) seizure, patients remain conscious, and can seem confused. Symptoms include blank staring or chewing repetitively.
The cause of epilepsy is not known for about half of all cases. The rest can be linked to a genetic mutation. Some children who are diagnosed with epilepsy have had brain infections. The cause of epilepsy in middle-aged adults can be linked to stroke and tumors.
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