Scientists are investigating whether delaying the onset of epilepsy in very young children could reduce or prevent other neurological conditions such as learning difficulties and autism, reports Medical Xpress.
This research into childhood epilepsy came about after a young boy diagnosed with tuberous sclerosis was given epilepsy drugs before he had developed epilepsy. Tuberous sclerosis (TS) is a condition that causes tumours, usually benign, to grow throughout the body resulting in damage to those areas. TS is usually linked to other conditions, including breathing difficulties, kidney dysfunction, learning difficulties, autism, and epilepsy. Most children with TS develop these last three symptoms by three years old. However, in the boy who was given epilepsy medicine before seizures began, none of these conditions occurred while the drug was being taken. However, when the treatment was stopped all three developed. This suggested a connection between the onset of epilepsy, and autism and learning difficulties. Subsequent research investigating these links has been carried out, one of which is a project called EPISTOP that is currently in its last year.
EPISTOP investigated whether autism and learning difficulties result from the genetic mutation that causes TS, as previously thought, or if they are secondary effects of developing epilepsy at such a young age, as the case above suggests. The study monitored 100 children with TS from birth for epilepsy onset. As soon as it began to develop, the children were treated with medication. The study is currently awaiting results, but some doctors are hopeful.
If delaying epilepsy also delays the associated neurological conditions, then by finding a way to delay the onset of epilepsy until a child is over two years old the child’s brain would have time to more fully develop. This may prevent the subsequent development of autism and learning difficulties. This would have far-reaching consequences for understanding and treating childhood epilepsy in a range of diseases, including TS. Furthermore, if childhood epilepsy is delayed, when the condition does eventually develop it requires lower doses of anti-seizure drugs to treat it, in comparison to epilepsy that develops at a younger age.
Another project looking at similar questions is the DESIRE project. This focuses on a range of rare genetic disorders that are associated with both epilepsy, and behavioural, physical, and cognitive conditions. The researchers were, again, trying to establish whether epilepsy was just associated with the other conditions or if it exacerbated them. The researchers at DESIRE are currently exploring treatment options for epilepsy, including a low carbohydrate diet, surgery, and turning off or ‘silencing’ the genes involved.
The research into these questions about how epilepsy is linked to other, co-occurring neurological conditions is on-going, but scientists are hopeful that this may provide a new avenue of treatment in the future. Already, researchers working on both the DESIRE and EPISTOP projects are looking at how to minimise the impact of epilepsy on young children.