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Understanding the links between epilepsy and other brain conditions

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Date Published: May 31, 2024

Author: Natalie Powell

Epilepsy often goes hand-in-hand with other neurological conditions related to the brain’s development and structure, such as attention-deficient hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dementia. It’s not clear exactly what causes these conditions to appear together – but research can provide us with answers.

In this Feature, we look at how the Epilepsy Research Institute is shedding light on neurodevelopmental conditions to help control seizures and improve the lives of people living with these conditions.

It may not be immediately obvious how epilepsy is linked to conditions such as ADHD, dementia, and autism. But they are all ‘neurodevelopmentalconditions and relate to how the brain is wired, how this wiring is first established before birth and in early childhood, and how it changes as we age. This means people with epilepsy are more likely to develop other neurodevelopmental conditions, and vice versa.

But despite these strong links, we actually know very little about what exactly causes these conditions to appear together, and how best to treat the epilepsies, including seizures in these people.

This is why understanding neurodevelopment is one of the key research themes for the Epilepsy Research Institute. Through research, we can create treatments to better control seizures for everyone and prevent epilepsy from making life even more challenging for people with other neurodevelopmental conditions.

In this Feature, we highlight a few examples of promising research we’re funding in this area.

Spotting the signs of autism in children with epilepsy

As many as 40% of children with epilepsy also have autism. Research has shown children living with both conditions have a higher chance of other mental and physical health problems, poorer quality of life overall, and shortened life expectancy.

This link between childhood epilepsy and autism suggests there could be common processes during early brain development which cause both conditions.

Dr Charlotte Tye is a researcher funded jointly by the Epilepsy Research Institute and the autism charity Autistica. Dr Tye is working with families of infants with epilepsy to spot early signs of differences in brain development.

“By identifying similarities and differences in brain development between babies with epilepsy that go on to show autistic symptoms and those that don’t, this study will inform approaches to early intervention that aim to improve longer-term quality of life,” Dr Tye says.

Understanding epilepsy and Alzheimer’s in people with Down Syndrome

Down Syndrome is caused by having an extra copy of the chromosome 21, which has many health implications. People with Down syndrome often develop Alzheimer’s disease at a young age, and as many as eight in every ten experience seizures at the same time as developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr Frances Wiseman is studying the complex link between epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease in people with Down syndrome. Thanks to funding from the Institute, she has been investigating the influence of genes found on the extra copy of chromosome 21 that people with Down syndrome carry.

Dr Wiseman hopes their work could help better control seizures in people with Down syndrome and slow memory decline.

Epilepsy and dementia research helping each other

The link between dementia and epilepsy in old age is strong. What’s more, repeated seizures and some anti-seizure medication can also affect memory over time.

There’s a great interest in better understanding this relationship in order to improve life for people with dementia and epilepsy. In this blog, Professor Arjune Sen outlines what is currently known about the relationship between epilepsy and memory, and how recent research is exploring whether anti seizure medication may benefit memory in people with dementia who have not yet had a seizure. (https://epilepsy-institute.org.uk/eri/research/features/epilepsy-and-memory-in-the-clinic/) It may also be possible to prevent epilepsy in this group with lifestyle changes known to reduce risk of some forms of dementia.

“Things are now moving quite quickly, which is just as well because there is a lot of important work to do,” says Professor Sen. “Only through further research, will we be able to ensure that fewer peoples’ lives are interrupted by epilepsy and its associated memory difficulties.”

Earlier this year, the Epilepsy Research Institute hosted a joint event with the UK Dementia Research Institute to promote collaboration between scientists working in these fields to ensure learnings and research is taken forward.

Untangling the complexities

The relationship between epilepsy and other neurodevelopmental conditions highlights the fascinating intricacies of the brain and how it is wired. Research is the only way we can untangle and better understand this complexity, and answer long-standing questions. And by doing so, we will be able to control seizures and improve life for people with epilepsy and other neurodevelopmental conditions.

Find out more about the work the Epilepsy Research Institute is doing to better understand neurodevelopment and its role in epilepsy.