Epilepsy: understanding the disorder

Epilepsy causes repeated seizures, and is estimated to affect more than 500,000 people in the UK. Image: MR McGill

Epilepsy causes repeated seizures, and is estimated to affect more than 500,000 people in the UK. Image: MR McGill

Research conducted by the Department of Biology at the University of York showed that the drug phenytoin, currently used to treat epilepsy, has beneficial effects on breast cancer patients. It has been discovered that treatment with phenytoin reduced both the growth and spread of tumor cells in a preclinical model.
This leads to a novel idea of studying anti-epileptic drugs as a new strategy to find anti-cancer therapies.

But before that, what is epilepsy? Epilepsy is a neurological disorder characterised by abnormal electrical activity in specific parts of the brain. These are responsible for the delivery of signals allowing the body to function.

The fault in signalling results in different types of seizures; people lose consciousness, experience uncontrolled movements, and in some cases, the person will exhibit  repeated blinking of the eyes or difficulties with speech.

Seeing someone having a seizure can be very shocking and people with epilepsy are often a target for discrimination. In some cultures, epilepsy is associated with madness. Chinese and Indian law states that a person suffering from the disorder is forbidden from marriage.

In Cameroon, there is a belief that people with epilepsy are cursed, and in the UK there was a law in place forbidding people with epilepsy to marry until 1970.
You might think that epilepsy only affects a small per cent of the population. This is a misconception.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), around 50 million people worldwide suffer from this disease. Scientists are still unable to pinpoint the exact cause of the disorder and risk factors include a genetic predisposition, severe injury and the onset of tumour growth.

It is a huge challenge to explain the physiological basis of the disease, but in terms of awareness, things are starting to change.

An International Epilepsy Day, the first taking place on Monday 9 February, has been created to increase public understanding about what is being done to prevent, cure and care for sufferers.

This February, the Executive Board of WHO agreed to a pledge to prioritise epilepsy care all around the world. The idea is to act upon both the medical, and the social consequences of the disease.
Efforts such as this must continue, as the struggles epileptic patients have to deal with in everyday life deserve to be better understood.

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