Many TV Viewers May Risk Seizures

An infamous example of this phenomenon was seen in Japan in 1997, when more than 600 school-aged children visited hospitals with nausea and seizures thought to be caused by exposure to colorful flashes of light shown in a televised episode of the cartoon "Pokémon."

In what has since been referred to among some neurologists as "the Pokémon incident," Najm and Alexopoulos note that only about 1 in 4 children who had a seizure during the cartoon had previously experienced a seizure.

And it's not just television. Some physicians also point toward video games as a possible trigger.

"Every year around the holidays, a small number of kids open their video games and have a seizure when they play," said Dr. Shlomo Shinnar, director of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Management Center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine's Montefiore Medical Center.

Shinnar adds that the Nintendo systems now even carry a warning that indicates this potential hazard.

An 'Electrical Storm' in the Brain

Though the exact mechanism of a light-induced seizure is not yet completely understood, researchers say barrages of light stimuli could create a kind of overload in the brain.

"It seems that when a light stimulus is applied, it does lead to the activation of more neurons than should be in the brain at once, and therefore a large area of the brain is activated all at once," Najm said. "This 'electrical brain storm' is associated with the shaking and other manifestations that we typically see in seizures, or 'fits.'"

Certain color combinations, such as red and blue, seem to be more risky than others when it comes to causing seizures. The frequency of the "flicker" emitted by the images, as well as contrast, can also play a role.

Erba said that in fact much is known about photosensitivity, and professor Graham Harding, the scientist who helped raise the alarm about the 2012 Olympics logo promo, did so after using a test he developed to screen potentially risky images on TV.

But while this test is available, regulators in the United States have not yet implemented its use.

"The government here does not seem to be interested," Erba said. "What bothers me is that this sense of social responsibility is lacking in this country."

Avoiding Pattern-Related Seizures

Fortunately, there are steps that photosensitive individuals can take to lessen their chances of an episode. Below are a few of the guidelines suggested by the Epilepsy Foundation:

Only watch television in a well-lit room.

Sit as far back from the screen as possible.

Avoid watching TV for long periods of time.

Know the warning signs. Such signs before such seizures are not always consistent, but commonly photic-induced seizures can start with a myoclonic jerk -- a very brief, rapid jerk of the body that may occur in the arms, legs or face.

If strange or unusual feelings or body jerks develop, turn off your television or remove yourself from the source of the light patterns immediately.

If you cannot get away from the source of the disturbance immediately, cover one eye to reduce your exposure.

For more information, visit the Epilepsy Foundation Web site at

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