Why does SUDEP happen and can it be prevented?

Sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP) is defined as the sudden death of a person with epilepsy, which cannot be attributed to any cause such as trauma or drowning, and for which no toxicological or anatomical cause is found. The underlying mechanisms of SUDEP are not fully understood, but with more than 500 people in the UK dying in this way each year, it is a serious cause for concern.

Researchers believe that SUDEP occurs when a seizure stops the heart and/or breathing for a certain length of time. Professor John Jefferys, at the University of Oxford, and colleagues at the University of Bristol and at Purdue University in the USA, have developed an animal model of epilepsy and new recording methods, which they have been using to test how spontaneous epileptic seizures affect these vital processes.

Initial experiments have revealed that significant changes in heart function accompany seizure activity, and that the heart may even stop for several seconds. Professor Jefferys has now been awarded £149,752 over 36 months, to investigate: how breathing and heart function are affected by seizures and other changes in brain waves related to epilepsy; whether repeated seizures cause structural damage to the heart, and whether drugs can control seizure-related changes in heart and lung function. This research will provide direct evidence on likely causes of SUDEP, and it may ultimately help in the identification of preventative strategies.

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