Roberts' Seizure May Foster Awareness of Condition

Ask anyone who has experienced a seizure like the one suffered by U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, and it is very likely that all they will recall from the episode will be a brief, missing chunk of time -- and waking up with a pounding headache.

Ask someone who has witnessed one as a bystander, however, and they will recount a much more vivid event.

"The people look strange, as if they have been 'seized' by something; they lose control," said Dr. Shlomo Shinnar, director of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Management Center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine's Montefiore Medical Center. "It is a frightening event."

"Most people who see it will equate it with a brush with death," said Dr. Giuseppe Erba, professor of neurology at the University of Rochester. "Seizure is one of the most frightening experiences to look at."

Now, however, many neurologists hope that Roberts' experience will provide an opportunity to dispel the widespread public fear surrounding seizures -- and highlight the fact that seizures like the one Roberts experienced are relatively harmless and often do not indicate any severe underlying health problems.

"Judge Roberts doesn't have any disease, other than that his brain is more excitable than yours or mine," Erba said. "It is a benign condition."

Understanding Seizures

Throughout the centuries, seizures have been viewed as a worrisome omen. Some 3,000 years ago, the ancient Babylonians proposed that demon possession was to blame for the episodes.

The ancient Romans also adhered to this idea, believing that people who experienced the episodes regularly were contagious -- forcing many with the condition to live solitary existences.

The stigma associated with epilepsy, a condition normally defined as a tendency to experience seizures, has led many to hide their condition in the past.

Dr. James Grisolia, senior vice president of the Epilepsy Foundation of San Diego, said this stigma persists until today.

"The idea that people with epilepsy have something really scary goes all the way back to classical times," he said. "Even today, many still have this notion that people with epilepsy might have something spiritually or emotionally wrong with them."

Experts remain split as to whether Roberts' condition should be defined as epilepsy or not. But it is a fact that epilepsy is common condition worldwide. Up to 3 percent of people in the general population experience the condition at some point in their life.

But individual cases of epilepsy can vary widely. And even individual seizures can vary greatly, ranging from a blank stare that lasts for a few minutes to a complete and sudden loss of consciousness.

Anatomy of a Seizure

Seizures in general are caused by abnormal surge of activity within the brain's cerebral neurons. Some doctors have likened the condition to an "electrical storm" within the brain.

It may be a fitting analogy, since in the same way that electrical storms can overwhelm the circuitry of electronics and household appliances, a seizure can interfere with the brain's sensitive circuitry, albeit temporarily.

"By definition, epileptic seizures occur as a result of abnormal electrical discharges in the brain," noted Dr. Dileep Nair, fellowship director for epilepsy and clinical neurophysiology at the Cleveland Clinic Epilepsy Center.

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