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Epilepsy and Seizures

A Historical PerspectiveMyths and Misconceptions

It is scary to learn that you have epilepsy. No one likes to have anything “wrong” with them—especially teens. There are many fears and misconceptions about epilepsy. Some people may believe certain myths about epilepsy: that it is a sign of mental illness or mental retardation, that it means you are possessed by evil spirits, or that it is contagious. None of these statements is true.

Epilepsy has been around for centuries. However, there are still many myths, stigmas (shameful associations), and misunderstandings about what it is, what causes it, and what people who have epilepsy are like. In the past, in many societies, people with epilepsy were thought to be possessed by demons and were often burned at the stake. Other societies thought that people with epilepsy had inferior or weak minds. People with epilepsy were discriminated against, abused, and even punished for having seizures. Fear and lack of understanding help maintain old, incorrect attitudes.

Over the years we have learned much about the brain and why some seizures occur, and we have made progress in the diagnosis and treatment of epilepsy. Public attitudes have changed over the years, but many people still do not understand the condition and may believe old myths about it. If you or someone you know has epilepsy, knowing the facts can help lessen the fears. There is no reason to be ashamed about having epilepsy.

Myths and Misconceptions

People have had epilepsy throughout history, and there have always been misunderstandings about it. In the seventeenth century, people believed that epilepsy was caused by demons. Then it was thought to be contagious. At one time, people believed that masturbation caused seizures, and many men who had seizures were castrated to stop them from masturbating.

Public attitudes, and even laws, were cruel to those who had epilepsy. At one time, people with epilepsy were locked up with the mentally ill and were considered harmful. Some were discouraged from attending school or getting married, and prevented from having children.

Medical discoveries have helped our understanding of epilepsy. In England in the late 1800s, Dr. Hughlings Jackson discovered that specific regions of the brain control specific parts of the body. Tests that help us understand the brain have evolved over time. The discovery of X rays in 1895 helped to show a picture of the brain. In the 1930s, the electroencephalogram, or EEG, was introduced. This test measures the electrical activity in the brain. Computerized tomography (CT) was first used in 1973. This form of testing, also called a CAT scan, provides a three-dimensional image of the brain. Today there are even more technologies for examining the brain.

Measuring and testing the brain's functions helps medical professionals to understand the effects of epilepsy, but it does not always reveal the cause. We know that there are many causes of epilepsy, but in about 70 percent of cases, the cause is not known.

At one time, people with epilepsy were thought to have low intelligence or to be mentally incompetent or retarded. We now know that this is not true. Although it is possible for people with mental disabilities to also have epilepsy, the two conditions are separate and unrelated. In most cases, people with epilepsy are just as intelligent and mentally able as those without epilepsy. Some people with epilepsy are above average in intelligence and some are below, just like those without epilepsy. It is true, however, that having seizures can interrupt attention or affect memory, and this can affect the grades and school performance of people with epilepsy.

Some of the medication that is prescribed to treat epilepsy can also have this effect. Side effects from these medications, such as drowsiness, memory loss, and mood or behavior problems, can interfere with learning. For this reason, many teens with epilepsy do not like taking medication.

Treatments for seizures have also changed over time. At one time, doctors drilled holes into the skulls of people who had epilepsy in the hope that this would cure them. Other methods of treatment that have been tried over the centuries include herbs, fasting (going without food), and prayer. Today there are many medications and other treatments available to control most types of seizures.

Anyone can have a seizure. Each person has something called a seizure threshold. This is the point at which a person's brain cells will temporarily discharge bursts of irregular electrical activity. Scientists believe that we inherit our seizure threshold. No two people have exactly the same seizure threshold, however. If two people have identical brain injuries, the one with the lower seizure threshold is more likely to have a seizure. Despite the fact that seizure thresholds appear to be inherited, most people with epilepsy have no family history of the condition.

People who have epilepsy do need to make some changes in their lifestyles, but they can still lead basically normal lives. Many famous people have had epilepsy.

They include the following:

  • Alexander the Great
  • Aristotle
  • Sister Wendy Beckett
  • Richard Burton
  • Lord Byron
  • Julius Caesar
  • Lewis Carroll
  • Charles Dickens
  • Danny Glover
  • George Frideric Handel
  • Joan of Arc
  • James Madison
  • Napoleon
  • Sir Isaac Newton
  • Alfred Nobel
  • Edgar Allen Poe
  • Socrates
  • Vincent Van Gogh

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaEpilepsy