September 2, 2014

Epilepsy in children may impair cognitive development, study suggests



Unlike many other chronic diseases that develop later in life, epilepsy often begins occurring in early childhood.  After a child develops epilepsy, he or she may have recurrent seizures for the rest of his or her life ranging from mild to severe.  According to Science Daily and the Epilepsy Foundation, approximately 326,000 children under fifteen have epilepsy and 45,000 new cases are diagnosed every single year.  Until recently, it was unknown exactly how or if epilepsy impacts these children’s brains differently than those who do not live with the disorder.  A new study from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health discovered that there is in fact a difference and it may impact their cognitive development.

The research team evaluated thirty-eight children who had been recently diagnosed with epilepsy and then compared them with thirty-four children who did not have the condition.  The average age of the children was twelve and they were tested using a MRI at the start of the study and then again two years later.  The researchers examined seizure frequency, as well as the impact that seizures had on the brain.  They found that the children who had a recent diagnosis of epilepsy exhibited different brain development when compared with the healthy group.  Specifically, the epilepsy group had decreased growth of white matter in the brain while the healthy group showed an age appropriate development of the matter.  In fact, the white matter in healthy children increased significantly.

Despite this difference between the groups, the researchers do not know whether the decreased white matter impacts cognitive development.  They do, however, believe that it may negatively impact such development and thereby result in a delay or impairment of executive function, including being able to pay attention, as well as perform mental tasks such as organizing and planning.  Obviously, more focused studies will need to be conducted to see if this impairment exists and whether the delay in white matter continues for a number of years or eventually catches up in development.  This study may help researchers to better understand the onset of epilepsy, as well as how to treat the disorder, especially in younger children.  The condition often results in individuals having to quit working because of the severity of seizures and this type of study may help to shore up why these individuals have difficulty on the job.  It will be interesting to see the results of a long term study and what role white matter plays in cognitive development.

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