Having some basic information on epilepsy can help debunk common myths and misconceptions about this frequently misunderstood brain disorder. For example, epilepsy is a brain disorder in which clusters of nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain sometimes signal abnormally. It is not contagious, and it is not caused by mental illness or mental retardation. Nearly two million Americans either have the disorder or have experienced a seizure.
Few experiences match the drama of a convulsive seizure. A person having a severe seizure may cry out, fall to the floor unconscious, twitch or move uncontrollably, drool, or even lose bladder control. Within minutes, the attack is over, and the person regains consciousness but is exhausted and dazed.
This is the image most people have when they hear the word epilepsy. However, this type of seizure -- a generalized tonic-clonic seizure -- is only one kind of epilepsy.
There are many other kinds, each with a different set of symptoms.
Epilepsy is a brain disorder in which clusters of nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain sometimes signal abnormally. Neurons normally generate electrochemical impulses that act on other neurons, glands, and muscles to produce human thoughts, feelings, and actions.
In epilepsy, the normal pattern of neuronal activity becomes disturbed, causing strange sensations, emotions, and behavior, or sometimes convulsions, muscle spasms, and loss of consciousness. During a seizure, neurons may fire as many as 500 times a second, much faster than the normal rate of about 80 times a second. In some people, this happens only occasionally; for others, it may happen up to hundreds of times a day.
Epilepsy was one of the first brain disorders to be described. It was referred to in ancient Babylon more than 3,000 years ago. The strange behavior caused by some seizures has contributed through the ages to many superstitions and prejudices.
The word epilepsy is derived from the Greek word for "attack." People once thought that those with epilepsy were being visited by demons or gods. However, in 400 B.C., the early physician Hippocrates suggested that epilepsy was a disorder of the brain -- and we now know that he was right.