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A common question that we receive in clinic relates to the chance that a parent will “pass on” their epilepsy to their children. Also, if one child has epilepsy, will their brother or sister develop epilepsy? These are important questions. The answer is, of course, complicated. The answers to such questions must be tailored to the individual/family.
GENERAL FACTS ABOUT THE RISK OF DEVELOPING EPILEPSY:
CHROMOSOME DISORDERS CONSISTENTLY ASSOCIATED WITH EPILEPSY
Some genetic neurologic conditions have seizures as a feature of their disorder. This may occur in all or nearly all patients with the genetic abnormality. It should be noted- these conditions are uncommon. Most patients with epilepsy do not have a specific chromosomal abnormality that the clinician can point to. The following is a list of two examples of chromosomal disorders in which patients typically develop seizures:
Some patients, as noted in the above section, can have a single chromosome abnormality that can be clearly tested for and identified. The single chromosome abnormality causes the neurologic disorder and epilepsy. This is (relatively!) straight forward. This is also relatively rare. A much more common scenario is that genetics plays a role in a patient developing epilepsy, but the cause and effect nature is not clearly understood and may be very complex. For example, some patients may have multiple genes that are abnormal, and it is the combination of these abnormalities that result in the epilepsy.
Let’s use mild head trauma as an example to help clarify some of these issues. Have you ever wondered why some people with mild head trauma develop epilepsy and some people do not? It is possible that there are people in the world who carry genes that predispose them to have seizures. But they may never develop epilepsy unless something happens to trigger the seizure activity. In our example, a person may have never developed epilepsy until he or she had the mild head trauma. Thus, it could be the combination of the genes and the mild head trauma that results in the epilepsy. If you could analyze 100 people who had the exact same mild head trauma, some of these patients may go on to develop epilepsy. The reason that some people develop epilepsy and some do not- may be related to differences in their genes!
(Please note: for many people, genetics may play only a minor role or no role whatsoever in their epilepsy. For example, people with head trauma may have no genetic predisposition to epilepsy. The trauma causes scarring in the brain and that is the whole cause of the epilepsy. The main point I want to make is that genetics may play a role in some patient’s epilepsy that may be surprising. The old thinking was that an injury to the brain like head trauma was the entire explanation for the cause of the epilepsy—and genetics had nothing to do with the seizures. The new thinking- genetics may play a role in some patients, even in cases of brain injury. This may be true even in adults. As is often the case, the full story can be complicated!).
The information on genetics and epilepsy is progressing at a rapid pace. The research is absolutely fascinating!
If readers would like more information on this topic, let me know. For example, more information on the basics of genetics, DNA etc. Also, additional information on what genes to test for in patients with epilepsy may also be of interest.
Elmslie F. Genetic Counseling. In: Engel J, Pedley T, ed. Epilepsy: A comprehensive Textbook. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams &Wilkins 2008: p. 211-215.
Goldman AM. Genes, seizures and epilepsy. Epilepsy.com
Zuberi S. Chromosome Disorders Associated with epileptic seizures. In: Panayiotopoulos CP, ed. Atlas of Epilepsies. London: Springer 2010: p. 121-127.