What is Epilepsy?
Epilepsy is a disorder of the brain. A child’s brain contains billions of nerve cells. They communicate with each other through tiny electrical charges that fire on and off in random fashion. When some or all of these cells suddenly begin to fire together, a wave of electrical energy sweeps through the brain, causing a seizure. Seizures interfere with the brain’s normal functions. They can cause a child to have sudden changes in consciousness, movement, or sensation. Some people use the term “seizure disorder” instead of “epilepsy” to describe this condition. In fact, both words mean the same thing — an underlying tendency to experience seizures. Having a single seizure does not mean a child has epilepsy — epilepsy is the name for seizures that happen more than once without a known treatable cause such as fever or low blood sugar.
Causes of Childhood Epilepsy
Pinpointing the cause of epilepsy is difficult at any age. In seven out of every ten cases, there is no known cause. These children are then said to have idiopathic epilepsy. “Idiopathic” is a Latin word meaning “of unknown cause.”
There are many possible causes of epilepsy in children, including: problems with brain development before birth; lack of oxygen during or following birth; a head injury that leaves a scar in the brain; unusual structures in the brain; tumors; a prolonged seizure with fever, or the after-effects of severe brain infections such as meningitis or encephalitis.
When a cause can be identified, children will be described as having symptomatic epilepsy. The seizures are thought to be a symptom of the underlying brain injury.
Epilepsy is a common disorder. Frequently, more than one person within an extended family may have seizures.
In most cases, a clear pattern of inheritance of epilepsy within a family cannot be determined. However, there does seem to be a slightly increased risk among close relatives of people with seizures, compared to risk in the general population. It is therefore important to ask your relatives about a family history of seizures, and to share this information with your doctor.
Some disorders that may cause symptomatic epilepsy are genetically caused, and in some families there is a clear pattern of inheritance.
The Epilepsy Foundation is helping the search for genes through its Internet-based Gene Discovery Project. The project invites families with a history of seizures in various members to post their family trees (called pedigrees) on the project site for future review by genetics researchers.