5 things pediatricians should know about seizures

Seizures can bring up a lot of worries and unknowns, especially when it comes to children.

One percent of the population has epilepsy, which puts the estimated number of children with epilepsy in Orange County alone at about 7,500. It is estimated that one in five people will have a seizure at some point—whether it develops into epilepsy or not—making seizures a more common neurological condition than multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease combined.

There are many common misconceptions about seizures, even within the medical community. Dr. Mary Zupanc, pediatric neurologist and epileptologist and co-medical director of CHOC’s Neuroscience Institute, points to five important points pediatricians should consider when seeing a patient who has had one or more seizures.

Professional headshot of Dr. Mary Zupanc, Pediatric Epileptologist at CHOC Children's, in a while labcoat on a gray background.
Dr. Mary Zupanc, Pediatric Epileptologist at CHOC Children’s
  1. There should be zero tolerance for seizures.

    Seizures are considered epilepsy when a child has had two or more unprovoked seizures—seizures that are not tied to a different underlying condition.

    When epilepsy is diagnosed, treatment should be initiated early. Some families are reluctant to treat their child’s epilepsy, often fearful that antiepileptic medication is worse than epilepsy itself. They worry about the side effects — that it will cause their child to have cognitive impairments and slow them down. However, repeated seizures can translate into progressive injury to the brain, with a decline in cognitive abilities and frequent psychosocial co-morbidities, including anxiety and depression. Furthermore, even if seizures are infrequent, there is a loss of independence for children and adolescents. An example would be an adolescent’s inability to obtain his/her driver’s license.

  2. Epilepsy is progressive.

    “Brain cells that seizure together network together,” Dr. Zupanc says, forming neuronal circuitry that hardwires the brain for continued seizures. Over time, there can be brain cell loss, cognitive decline, and important psychosocial consequences. Furthermore, when seizures continue, there is increased risk among those with epilepsy of sudden, unexpected death or other progressive neurological issues over the subsequent 20-30 years.

  3. Encourage parents to act quickly.

    Recurrent unprovoked seizures is the definition of epilepsy. Epilepsy should be treated and not ignored, for the reasons outlined above. Approximately 60-70% of epilepsy can be completely controlled with antiepileptic medication. Thirty percent of patients with epilepsy have intractable seizures, i.e. a failure to control the seizures with antiepileptic medications. These patients require more comprehensive care, including an evaluation for epilepsy surgery — at a Level IV Epilepsy Center, which is a designated center given only to those centers who provide multidisciplinary care with cutting-edge technology. Some parents fear that epilepsy surgery will cause serious neurological deficits. Most epilepsy surgeries are highly successful without detrimental effects to cognitive or motor functions. With epilepsy surgery, the risk of a severe and permanent injury is under 1%, and the risk of a minor or temporary injury is under 5%. Compared to the risks associated with years of recurrent seizures, the risks of epilepsy surgery are much lower than the risks of continued epilepsy.  

    The effectiveness of epilepsy surgery decreases significantly over time, especially for children who have had epilepsy for seven or more years. In addition, the plasticity of younger brains allows a transfer of functions to other parts of the brain — something adult brains cannot do as readily, Dr. Zupanc says.

    Because of this, she strongly encourages epilepsy surgery early, not waiting until a child is older.

  4. Delay in seizure treatment affects long-term psychological health.

    The psycho-social components of seizures are oftentimes just as important as the physiological ones, says Dr. Zupanc. Depression and anxiety occur in 50- to 60% of children with epilepsy, and there is also a notable increase in suicidal risk.

    These effects are increased when families wait to pursue recommended surgery, she says. Later in life, the surgery may remove the seizures, but the psychological effects are already deeply embedded.

  5. Seizure history should affect your referral choice.

    “It is so important for pediatricians to know that if a child’s epilepsy has not come under complete control after trying two or more antiepileptic medications, he/she should be referred to a higher level of epilepsy care, specifically a Level III-IV Epilepsy Center, as designated by the National Association of Epilepsy Centers,” says Dr. Zupanc. If the child is a young baby, the referral is even more urgent. “If a baby continues to have seizures after just one drug, he/she needs a referral to a Level III-IV epilepsy center immediately.”

    The care plan should include pediatric epilepsy specialists, epilepsy-trained neurosurgeons, state of the art neuroimaging tools, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, dieticians, social workers and neuropsychologists.

    “At CHOC, we treat epilepsy with a multidisciplinary team approach,” says Dr. Zupanc. Additional diagnostic tests are usually necessary to diagnose the appropriate epilepsy syndrome, determine if epilepsy surgery is an option, and/or outline an individualized, optimal treatment plan.

    Furthermore, all of those involved in the child’s care hold a comprehensive epilepsy conference to discuss complex cases and lay out the best possible strategy for achieving a seizure free outcome.

Seizure-free after a rare epilepsy diagnosis

Thanks to the expertise of a CHOC Children’s epileptologist, a 12-year-old boy diagnosed with a rare type of epilepsy is seizure-free and has a bright future ahead – the significance of which is underscored in November, Epilepsy Awareness Month.

Gabriel Lucak had been a healthy, normally developing child until age 3, when he suddenly began experiencing seizures.

CHOC Children's Neuroscience Institute patient Gabriel Lucak poses by the ocean
CHOC Children’s Neuroscience Institute patient Gabriel Lucak

What began as a tonic-clonic seizure in May 2008 rapidly progressed to include myoclonic, atonic, and atypical absence seizures. On his worst days, Gabriel experienced up to 50 seizures a day.

“It was like living out a surreal nightmare,” said his mother, Nicole.

Gabriel was initially diagnosed with myoclonic-astatic epilepsy, also known as Doose syndrome. His seizures were difficult to control, and doctors attempted many different treatments, including eight months on a ketogenic diet. During this time, Gabriel was hospitalized numerous times to modify his medication and control his seizures.

Searching for answers

A low point for the Lucak family came about nine months after the seizures began. While hospitalized for respiratory syncytial virus, Gabriel’s seizures increased significantly. An electroencephalogram (EEG) recorded seizures occurring about once a minute and a slowing brain wave frequency. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) revealed decreased brain volume. Gabriel’s health was rapidly deteriorating.

Joe and Nicole desperately began looking elsewhere for help, and in March 2009 found a beacon nearly 1,400 miles away in Dr. Mary Zupanc, a pediatric neurologist and one of the nation’s leading epileptologists, who was then practicing in Wisconsin.

Under Dr. Zupanc’s care, Gabriel was placed on a new treatment program. He stopped following the ketogenic diet and began taking a new antiepileptic medication. He underwent a two-week long-term video EEG monitoring study, which revealed he was experiencing a fifth type of seizure – tonic – during sleep.

CHOC epileptologist Dr. Mary Zupanc holds a model of a human brain..
CHOC Children’s pediatric epileptologist Dr. Mary Zupanc

A new diagnosis

Dr. Zupanc then knew that Gabriel’s epilepsy had evolved into a more severe form called Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS). This rare type of epilepsy is marked by seizures that are difficult to control, and typically persist through adulthood.

In addition, Dr. Zupanc diagnosed Gabriel with cerebral folate deficiency, a rare metabolic condition, following a spinal tap and extensive testing on his cerebral spinal fluid. He immediately began taking a folinic acid supplement and following a strict dairy-free diet.

Under this new treatment plan, Gabriel was seizure-free within two months. A second spinal tap showed a normal level of folate, and another MRI had normal results. The Lucaks were thrilled.

“Gabriel could have suffered severe brain damage, or he might not have survived at all,” Nicole said. “That’s how critical it was for us to have found Dr. Zupanc when we did.”

A bright future

Today, Gabriel is an intelligent, creative and artistic 12-year-old who dreams of being a paramedic when he grows up.

He remains under Dr. Zupanc’s care, traveling from San Diego to the CHOC Children’s Neuroscience Institute and its level 4 epilepsy center for appointments and annual long-term EEG monitoring.

Gabriel is also under the care of Dr. Jose Abdenur, chief of CHOC’s metabolics disorders division. Gabriel, his younger brother, Nolan, and his parents have all participated in several research studies involving genetic testing for both epilepsy and cerebral folate deficiency.

Recently, Gabriel was weaned off the antiepileptic medication and continues to be seizure-free.

“He has the opportunity to live a full life in good health, thanks to an amazing series of events that led to experienced doctors, correct diagnoses and effective treatment,” Nicole said.

Learn more about the CHOC Children’s Neuroscience Institute.

Infantile Spasms: What Pediatricians Should Know

Though seizures in children are always worrisome, pediatricians should be especially watchful for infantile spasms, a type of epilepsy that occurs in young infants typically between ages 3 and 8 months, a CHOC Children’s neurologist says.

These seizures should be considered a medical emergency due to the potentially devastating consequences on the developing brain, Dr. Mary Zupanc says. Many children with infantile spasms go on to develop other forms of epilepsy because a developing brain undergoing an epileptic storm essentially becomes programmed for ongoing seizures and cognitive/motor delays.

To that end, here’s what pediatricians should look for:

  • Infantile spasms often occur in clusters, with each spasm occurring every five to 10 seconds over a period of minutes ranging from three to 10 minutes or longer.
  • Though there is almost always a cluster of spasms in the morning when the child awakens from sleep, infantile spasms can occur at any time during the day or night.

Infantile spasms can be easily missed because they can mimic common symptoms and conditions such as sleep disturbances, gastroesophageal reflux, startle and shuddering attacks.

Diagnosis, treatment

If infantile spasms are suspected, a pediatrician should quickly refer the child to a pediatric neurologist. CHOC neurologists admit these children urgently for long-term video electroencephalogram (EEG) monitoring to confirm the diagnosis.

Infantile spasms are diagnosed on the basis of clinical spasms, in association with a markedly abnormal EEG showing a hypsarrhythmia pattern. A hypsarrhythmia pattern is characterized by very high amplitude electrical activity and multifocal areas of the brain demonstrating epileptic discharges.

High-dose adrenocorticotropic hormone, or ACTH, is CHOC neurologists’ first line of treatment for infantile spasms, per the American Academy of Neurology’s 2004 practice parameter. Vigabatrin (Sabril), the parameter states, is probably effective in the treatment of infantile spasms, especially in children with tuberous sclerosis and infantile spasms.

If started within four to six weeks of seizure onset therapy has better success at stopping spasms, eliminating the hypsarrhythmia pattern and improving developmental outcomes regardless of etiology.

The course of treatment is approximately six weeks. During this time, and for two to three months after the ACTH course, immunizations should not be administered. The effectiveness of ACTH may be as high as 85 percent, though a recent published study placed the efficacy at a slightly lower percentage, regardless of etiology.

Side effects, causes

Side effects of ACTH, a steroid, include high blood pressure, increased appetite and weight gain, increased sugar in the blood, temporary suppression of the immune system, and sometimes gastritis. All side effects are monitored during the time of the ACTH, and they disappear after the course of treatment.

Successful therapy is marked by two achievements: the cessation of the infantile spasms and the elimination of the hypsarrhythmia pattern. But because clinical spasms can be very subtle and the hypsarrhythmia pattern may sometimes only be seen during deep sleep, therapy’s success can only be confirmed through objective long-term video EEG monitoring.

The etiologies for infantile spasms can include:  tuberous sclerosis; cortical dysplasias; stroke; infection including meningitis and encephalitis; hypoxic-ischemic injury; trauma; or genetic conditions such as Down syndrome and metabolic disorders.

 

ROSA Robot Assists in CHOC Patient’s Successful Epilepsy Surgery

Five-year-old Ian Higginbotham recently enjoyed his best summer yet.  He experienced his first family vacation. He learned to swim and ride a bike. He got himself ready for kindergarten.  These are milestones most kids and parents, alike, eagerly welcome.  But there was a time when Ian’s parents weren’t certain their son, who was born seemingly healthy, would enjoy such happy pastimes.

Ian began talking and walking in his sleep as a toddler.  When the episodes, including night terrors, increased in frequency and severity, his mom Lisa made an appointment with the pediatrician.  One day, Lisa knew something just wasn’t right and didn’t want to wait for the appointment to get Ian checked out.  She and her husband Derek took him to the Julia and George Argyros Emergency Department at CHOC Children’s Hospital.  To her surprise, doctors diagnosed her son with epilepsy.    Ian’s “sleepwalking” and “night terrors” were actually seizures.

The family was referred to CHOC’s comprehensive epilepsy program.  A national leader in pediatric epilepsy care, CHOC’s comprehensive epilepsy program offers cutting-edge diagnostics, innovative medical approaches and advanced surgical interventions.  CHOC was the first children’s hospital in the state to be named a Level 4 epilepsy center by the National Association of Epilepsy Centers, signifying the highest-level medical and surgical evaluation and treatment for patients with complex epilepsy.

CHOC Children's

Ian’s neurologist Dr. Andrew Mower suspected he was experiencing complex partial seizures, which was confirmed by video EEG monitoring.  Complex partial seizures start in a small area of the temporal or frontal lobe of the brain, and quickly involve the areas of the brain affecting alertness and awareness.  The pattern of Ian’s seizures suggested they were originating from the right frontal lobe.  Dr. Mower knew Ian and his family were in for a tough journey.

“I really don’t think the general public understands the impact epilepsy has on a child and his family.  Its effects are multifaceted and extensive.  Our team’s goal is to reduce or eliminate our patients’ seizures, helping improve their quality of life,” explains Dr. Mower, who placed Ian on a series of medications.

The medications reduced Ian’s seizures, but did not control them.  Dr. Mower was concerned about the seizures affecting Ian’s development, and presented his case to the epilepsy team.   The multidisciplinary team agreed Ian was a candidate for epilepsy surgery.  For children who fail at least two medications, surgery may be considered early in treatment versus as a last resort.  Surgery can result in an improvement in seizure control, quality of life, and prevent permanent brain damage.  Ian’s surgery was going to be performed by CHOC neurosurgeon Dr. Joffre Olaya.

While the thought of surgery was frightening to Lisa and her husband, they were confident in the team and comforted to know their son was going to benefit from innovative technology, like the ROSA™ Robot. Considered one of the most advanced robotized surgical assistants, ROSA includes a computer system and a robotic arm.  The computer system offers 3D brain mapping to aid surgeons in locating the exact areas they need to reach and planning the best surgical paths.  The robotic arm is a minimally invasive surgical tool that improves accuracy and significantly reduces surgery/anesthesia time.

Dr. Olaya used ROSA to accurately place electrodes in the area of Ian’s brain suspected to be the source of his seizures.  By using the robot, Dr. Olaya avoided performing a craniotomy.

“ROSA is an amazing tool that yields many benefits for our patients, including less time under anesthesia in the operating room.  It reduces blood loss and risk of infections.  Patients tend to recover faster than they would if they had craniotomy,” says Dr. Olaya.

Lisa was amazed at the outcome. “I couldn’t believe how great Ian looked after the placements of the electrodes with ROSA.  He wasn’t in any pain, there was no swelling.  It was wonderful!”

She and her husband were also amazed at how well Ian did following his epilepsy surgery.

“We got our boy back,” says Lisa. “There were no more side effects from medication and, more importantly, no more seizures!  He started developing again and doing all the things a child his age should do.”

Ian’s care team isn’t surprised by his recovery.

“Children are resilient, and their brains are no different.  In fact, the plasticity of a young brain allows it to adapt to changes and heal more easily than an adult brain,” explains Dr. Mower.

Learning to ride a bike and swim were among the first of many milestones Ian quickly reached following surgery.  He enjoys playing with his younger brother and his friends.  And, whether inspired by his experience with ROSA or not, Ian loves robots.

Dr. Mary Zupanc joins national pediatric neurology board of directors

A CHOC Children’s neurologist has been elected to the board of directors of a national pediatric neurology organization.

Dr. Mary Zupanc, Division Chief of pediatric  neurology at CHOC and director of the pediatric comprehensive epilepsy program, has been named councillor of the west for the Child Neurology Society, a nonprofit professional association of pediatric neurologists in the United States, Canada and worldwide.

CHOC Children's

“I’m thrilled for an opportunity to expand my work of advocacy for children with neurologic conditions at CHOC to a global level,” Dr. Zupanc said.

She begins her term in October 2016 at the organization’s annual meeting in Vancouver, Canada. The Child Neurology Society’s board of directors comprises councillors of the east, Midwest and west; a president; a past-president; and a secretary-treasurer.

“The Child Neurology Society is fortunate to be able to draw on such a deep pool of bright, capable, community-oriented leaders willing to offer their time and talent to help shape the future of child neurology through the Child Neurology Society,” the group said in its announcement.