Electrical Brain-storming

Austism treatments may come from better understanding epilepsy

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) In an interesting twist, researchers discovered about a decade ago that many of the brain patterns seen in epilepsy are also seen in children with autism.

While the features of autism are often subtle and hard to define, one symptom can't be missed. Roughly one-third of individuals with austism, also have seizures.

"Studying epilepsy may help scientists better understand autism."

There are no firm numbers as to how many people have both epilepsy and autism. The estimates range from 5 to 46 percent. It is known that having both disorders is more common than the one percent incidence of epilepsy in the general population.

While several large studies on the origins and genetics of epilepsy and autism have found shared traits in the diseases, scientists still can't explain the cause of these overlaps.

That children with autism are more likely to have epilepsy has been accepted for more than a decade, according to Shafali Spurling Jeste, assistant professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

She'd like to know if epilepsy can help expand the understanding of autism.

Seizures are sort of like electrical storms in the brain. When measured by an EEG (electroencephalography), a seizure shows up as an unusual pattern of spikes and waves in the brain. People with autism also have unusal brain wave patterns.

And while this brain activity can be fairly violent that can lead to physical convulsions, seizures can also be mild and happen without being noticed.

When austism and epilepsy occur together, the diagnosis is even trickier. The two disorders share the same signs - blank stares, inattention and motor tics. To make matters even more confusing, people with autism can develop epilepsy either in childhood or in adulthood.

Researchers continue to uncover the overlaps. Here's what's been revealed so far:

  • Children with both disorders are very different from those with autism only
  • In autism, boys outnumber girls by four to one; with both disorders that ratio drops in half
  • People with autism and mental retardation are at greater risks of having seizures
  • When intellectual disability accompanies autism, seizures are more likely
  • Epiletic children who have their first seizure before the age of 2 are more likely to have autism

It's not known if seizures cause or contribute to autism, or whether they result from glitches in early brain development.

A number of genes and gene mutations are being studied to see what role they play in both disorders.

Meanwhile, some researchers are suggesting that early treatment of autism with anti-seaizure medications could help improve cognitive development. A small study also showed that an anticonvulsant brought some relief to irritability in people with autism.

Jest says that in the next few years, there will be clinical trials to test these types of medications for treating autism.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 8, 2011
Last Updated:
June 30, 2011