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Neurological Disorders Channel
Reported October 6, 2003

Treating Epilepsy

LOS ANGELES (Ivanhoe Broadcast News) -- According to the Epilepsy Foundation of America, 2.3 million people in the United States have epilepsy. Often diagnosed at a young age, many patients can go years -- even a lifetime -- with inadequate control of their seizures. Now, more aggressive treatment is getting patients back into life.

With intense concentration and steady hands, Margaret Weems pours her soul into these keys. “I’ve been involved in music since 3," she tells Ivanhoe. "Music is just something that exercises every part of the brain.”

Diagnosed with epilepsy at 12, Weems never knew if her performances would be seizure-free. “I pretty much could not ever be left alone.” Even on medication, she had up to five seizures a week.

UCLA Neurologist Jerome Engel, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., says 30 percent of epileptic patients are not controlled with medication. “There is no specific approach to the medical treatment, and it’s trial and error by most physicians,” he tells Ivanhoe.

When drugs fail, surgery is often used as a last resort -- partly because of the fear of brain surgery. Dr. Engel is leading a study to find out if surgery earlier in the disease is a better option: “Epilepsy itself is much more dangerous than surgery. The risk of death from seizures is much greater than it is from surgery.”

Surgery may be the best bet for many patients. Studies show one-third of patients remains seizure-free two years after surgery. Weems had the surgery at 16. Now 29, she hasn’t had a seizure since. She says: “It’s been awesome. It’s been amazing.”

It took about a year to recover from not having seizures, but it was worth it. “To go through one year of hard work of recuperating vs. the rest of your life of being frustrated, that’s just a slam dunk,” Weems says.

Dr. Engel says it often takes years for patients to go through the many different medications for epilepsy before it’s determined that none of them will control their disease. By then, surgery is still an option, but the damage from the seizures is already done. The trial to determine whether surgery or medication is best in the early stages of the disease is taking place at 19 sites nationwide.

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