NEWS | July 12, 2019

Epilepsy: 9 things you need to know about the disorder that caused a Disney star's death

A Q&A with UC Davis pediatric epileptologist Trishna Kantemneni


This week, the parents of Disney Channel star Cameron Boyce confirmed that their son had died suddenly from an epileptic seizure. How common is this? UC Davis Health pediatric epileptologist Trishna Kantemneni shares what you need to know about seizures and epilepsy.

Trishna Kantamneni Trishna Kantamneni

Q: What is epilepsy?

A: Seizures happen due to sudden, abnormal electrical disturbance in the brain. When a person is predisposed to having repeated unprovoked seizures, they are diagnosed with epilepsy.

Q: What causes it?

A: Epilepsy may occur due to different reasons like following a stroke, brain malformations, infections like meningitis, a brain tumor or following a major head injury. Sometimes, epilepsy is part of a bigger medical diagnosis like a genetic or a metabolic disorder.

Q: What are symptoms of epilepsy?

A: Epilepsy causes seizures. Adults and children with epilepsy are at a higher risk of having anxiety, depression, learning difficulties, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), executive problems including impulsivity, difficulty paying attention, poor working memory, trouble managing emotions and socialization challenges.

Q: How common is epilepsy?

A: A study in 2015 reported that about 1.2% of the total U.S population had epilepsy, which is roughly about 3.4 million people nationwide and 470,000 children. There are about 60,000 children under the age of 18 in California who have epilepsy.

Q: How often does epilepsy lead to death?

A: SUDEP stands for sudden unexpected death in epilepsy. While it is rare, it occurs in about 1 in every 1,000 adults with epilepsy and 1 in every 4,500 children with epilepsy. The exact cause of it is still unclear. The leading hypothesis is that an irregular heart rhythm is triggered by a seizure, or the seizure causes trouble with breathing that leads to low oxygen and a respiratory arrest. Uncontrolled, generalized tonic-clonic seizures (seizures in which your body stiffens, jerks and shakes and you lose consciousness) is a risk factor for SUDEP. Taking medications regularly, getting adequate sleep and rest and avoiding alcohol and drug use can help reduce SUDEP risk.

Q: Is epilepsy preventable?

A: Currently, we are not able to predict who will develop epilepsy. No, it is not preventable.

Q: What are treatment options?

A: Medications are the first line treatment. We have over 20 anti-seizure medications available now that are FDA-approved for epilepsy treatment. Dietary therapy, surgery and neuro-modulation are the other treatment options.

When someone's seizures do not respond to two different medications, then they should be referred to an epilepsy specialist to see if surgery is a treatment option. Some surgical treatments offer a 40-80% chance of being seizure free.

Q: What does UC Davis Health provide to support children with epilepsy?

A: UC Davis Health has a team of experienced pediatric neurologists, including a pediatric epileptologist, who sees children with seizures and epilepsy. We can monitor children on video electroencephalograph (EEG) in the hospital to help diagnose seizures, adjust medications and evaluate for surgery. We also have a modified Atkins diet clinic and often collaborate with other specialists like genetics to help find the cause for a child's epilepsy.

Q: Is there a cure for epilepsy?

A: Though there is not a cure for epilepsy currently, not all epilepsies are life-long disorders. Some children with epilepsy (depending on the type) can outgrow their seizures. We have several treatment options that help us manage epilepsy effectively.