Seized by the anti-storm

Newsweek has an excellent article on the neuroscience and personal impact of epilepsy. It’s well-researched, gripping in parts and bang up-to-date as it takes us through how neurologists tackle the seizure-prone brain.

I was particularly impressed by the following section as it avoids the common clich√© of the epileptic ‘brain storm’ because, as we’ve discussed before on Mind Hacks, a seizure is not a storm of random brain activity.

In fact, it’s completely the opposite. During a seizure neurons become super-synchronised, pulsing together, so they can’t do their normal job. In effect, it’s an anti-storm.

Conceptually, the job of the cardiologist is straightforward: he needs to restore a damaged heart to its normal rhythm. But epilepsy is the opposite. A normal brain is governed by chaos; neurons fire unpredictably, following laws no computer, let alone neurologist, could hope to understand, even if they can recognize it on an EEG. It is what we call consciousness, perhaps the most mathematically complex phenomenon in the universe.

The definition of a seizure is the absence of chaos, supplanted by a simple rhythmic pattern that carries almost no information. It may arise locally (a “partial” seizure), perhaps at the site of an old injury, a tumor or a structural malformation. A network of neurons begin firing in unison, enlisting their fellows in a synchronous wave that ripples across the brain.

Or it may begin everywhere at once (“generalized” epilepsy), with an imbalance of ions across the cell membrane, usually the result of an inherited mutation. At a chemical signal, whose origin is still a mystery, billions of neurons drop the mundane business of running the body and join in a primitive drumbeat, drowning out the murmur of consciousness. And so in contrast to the cardiologist, the epilepsy doctor must attempt to restore not order, but chaos.

The article is very much epilepsy from the medical perspective, but it is probably the single best mainstream piece I’ve read that attempts to tackle this area.

If you only read a handful of epilepsy articles in your life, make this one of them. Well done Newsweek.

Link to Newsweek article ‘In the Grip of the Unknown’.


  1. Posted April 20, 2009 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

    What an interesting comparison/contrast.

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    Posted April 21, 2009 at 1:53 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this post. It’s very informative because I have an epileptic sister and have no idea what’s going on inside her when she’s having seizures. Thanks again.

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