Saturday, May 15, 1999 Published at 01:25 GMT 02:25 UK
Scientists study brain damage link to epilepsy
Scientists are studying the brain to see if epilepsy causes damage
UK scientists have begun a pioneering study into whether epileptic fits cause long-term brain damage.
The study is funded by the Wellcome Trust and the National Society for Epilepsy, which launches National Epilepsy Week on Saturday.
In 1995, researchers studied the brains of 236 people who had recently suffered their first epileptic fit.
They are now following up the study three-and-a-half-years later to see whether their condition has caused any form of brain damage.
About 400,000 people in the UK suffer from epilepsy, making it the most common form of brain disorder.
It results in recurrent fits or seizures and can lead to loss of consciousness and death.
However, drug treatments can keep the symptoms under some control for the majority of sufferers.
The 236 patients were originally given a brain scan using a magnetic resonance imaging machine.
The scans give a detailed picture of any damage to the brain.
The patients are now being invited back for another scan which will be matched with the first one. The researchers will be looking for any signs of scarring or shrinking of brain tissue.
Professor John Duncan, who is leading the research and is the medical director of the National Society for Epilepsy, says it is the first study of its kind into the long-term effects of epilepsy on the brain.
The researchers are also scanning a control group of 80 people to screen for the general effects of ageing on the brain.
"We think it is likely that people who have had lots of seizures or severe ones may be at risk of brain damage," said Professor Duncan.
"We are also looking to see if any particular part of the brain is at risk of damage and if some areas are more resistant.
"In this way, we can identify if some people are more at risk than others and they can perhaps be given more intensive treatment."
People who suffer from epilepsy are usually given minimum doses of drug treatments because it is unclear what the side effects will be.
If the seizures continue the dosage is increased.
"If we find that recurrent seizures do indeed cause brain damage, then a more aggressive initial therapy may be better right from the outset," said Professor Duncan.
The researchers are expected to take up to two years to complete their scans.
Professor Duncan is also involved in another study into whether epilepsy is a symptom of brain damage.
The National Society for Epilepsy has launched an awareness campaign for National Epilepsy Week, highlighting public ignorance over how to deal with a person who is having a seizure.