Department of Neurology

How do strobe lights cause seizures?

Q: When I was about 2 years old I had a seizure. I'm 13 now and haven't had one since. My parents said I couldn't have a strobe light because it could cause me to have another seizure. I've always been interested in science and medicine, and was wondering if you would tell me how a strobe light effects the nervous system, causing a seizure, or maybe a web site that could tell me more.

Thanks for taking the time to review my request, and (hopefully) answering it.

A: Having epilepsy does not necessarily indicate a susceptibility to strobe light exposure if you have never had a light induced seizure in the past. As outlined in previous postings here, only a minority of persons with epilepsy are photosensitive. Very often, the photosensitivity can be eliminated with medications such as valproate (Depakote).

Science and medicine are wonderful areas for you to be interested in. If you wish to learn more about the brain mechanisms of photosensitivity, you might wish to look up the research work of Dr. Robert Naquet, who has studied photosensitivity in a particular group of baboons (Papio papio) that have a genetic photosensitivity to flashing light. However, this might be a bit too complex for you at this time. In simple terms, the flashing light causes brain cells in the visual system to fire off together, and because it happens over and over it acts as a start point for seizures.

You mentioned that you have not had a seizure since the age of 2; some people outgrow their epilepsy, and you might want to discuss this with your neurologist.

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