Updated: Feb 27
Seizures and epilepsy have been a part of the human experience since nearly the beginning of recorded history. Loss of bodily control and physical convulsions that have come to typify the presentation of a seizure, have classically been witnessed in some of the most ancient literature, and often attributed to either divine or demonic possession.
Until more recent technological developments, seizures have been an enigmatic phenomenon, to which many other diseases and afflictions have become credited. As scientific instrumentation and medical technology developed, identification and tracking of seizure activity in the brain has become more precise. A seizure is essentially an abnormal burst of activity within or across specific brian sites or networks, and is broadly categorized into three main causes; genetic, disorders of neuroendocrine development, and response to an insult or injury. A siezure can be a single event due to one of the above causes, but when it recurs unprovoked more than 2 times across a 10year span it is known as epilepsy.
A seizure can involve parts of the brain, or the entire brain, and manifest in numerous ways. The most common and easily recognized type of seizure is called a Tonic-Clonic (formerly called “Grand Mal”) seizure, which involves an initial stiffening of the limbs and body that cause the person to fall (called “drop attack”), followed by physical convulsions where the limbs begin to jerk uncontrollably for up to 5 minutes. Seizures are also not always recognizable to either the patient, or a clinician. An Absence Seizure (formerly “Petit Mal”) is characterized by a brief blanking out or staring episode, generally for several seconds, and is usually outgrown and does not cause any long-term harm. Other symptoms of seizure include a change in awareness, partial or full loss of consciousness, and emotional changes such as fear, anxiety, or deja vu. It is not uncommon for a specific seizure disorder to be misdiagnosed and assigned the wrong treatment, thereby causing even more complications.
Epilepsy, defined by the occurrence of two or more unprovoked seizures, is the most prevalent neurological disease globally, raising the chance of premature death by up to three times if left untreated. Affecting around 50million people globally, and 3.5 million in the USA, epilepsy accounts for a significant proportion of the world’s disease burden. The increase of epilepsy incidence with age amounts to approximately $2.5 billion per year in direct medical cost, in addition to the incalculable productivity and household income loss of the affected families. Additionally about 24% of epilepsy patients have an additional mental health disorder.
The impact that epilepsy has on the quality of an individual’s life, as well as the lives of their family members, is affected by the severity and nature of the condition. This disorder frequently impacts many areas of life including the right to have a drivers license, opportunity of education and employment, social function and relationships, as well as healthy cognitive and emotional development.
Even though a seizure may get diagnosed by an objective assessment of presenting symptoms, the fundamental and conclusive way that seizure activity is analyzed in the brain is by the use of an electroencephalography (EEG), or brain waves. There are different EEG signatures that are more specific to the exact time that a seizure ocurs, but because it is also important to understand the characteristics of an epilepsy prone brain at a time outside of a seizure event, there are fortunately other patterns of activity that are consistent throughout the normal waking state. A common difference in the EEG of epilepsy patients is that their brains produce a higher prevalence of the slow Theta brain waves (4-9Hz), and a lower prevalence of the fast Beta brain waves (12-15Hz), also referred to as sensorimotor rhythm (SMR).
Neurofeedback technology involves the both the measure and reinforcement of specific EEG parameters. By using a quantitative EEG scan (QEEG) a neurofeedback provider can obtain an objective assessment of each individual’s brain function. Since various epilepsy disorders have different origins and generators in the brain, a QEEG becomes an invaluable resource in retrieving this information. Once this data is collected and reviewed with the client, the appropriate sequence of neurofeedback protocols are assigned.
(Barry Sterman's EEG cat experiment)
The lesser known historical foundations of neurofeedback are built upon its effect on seizures. The discovery of neurofeedback by Barry Sterman, Ph.D. in UCLA was born in the observation that laboratory EEG trained cats were able to resist the onset of seizures in the presence of rocket fuel, unlike their untrained contemporaries. So striking was this discovery that a 23-year old treatment resistant epileptic lab assistant of Dr. Sterman volunteered herself to undergo the same EEG reinforcement. Over the course of the next two years of administering neurofeedback, the lab assistant was cured of any future seizure episodes.
Over the next 30+ years these initial results of neurofeedback were reproduced successfully many times with an average seizure reduction rate of around 74%, currently making neurofeedback the most potent and powerful treatment for the epilepsy population. The ability to be free from the constraints and bondage of a disorder is the right of every individual. Neurofeedback gives those suffering from epilepsy the option to restore what was lost, and take advantage of life opportunities previously unavailable.