Department of Neurology

Sleep deprivation and epilepsy

Q: You responded previously to an inquirer that sleep deprivation can be associated with epilepsy. According to some information which I fond on the internet, the US Army demonstrated in their induced sleep deprivation study that with prolonged sleep deprivation, people lower their threshold and may develop seizure-like symptoms. My question is can a healthy individual with no history of epilepsy develop seizure with prolonged sleep deprivation? If so, approximately how many days (hours) of sleep deprivation does it take one to develop seizure?

A: First, epilepsy is not an all or nothing situation. Given the wrong circumstances, it is likely that every person can have a seizure. Sleep deprivation definitely lowers seizure threshold, but should not result in spontaneous seizures in most persons. Thus, sleep deprivation does not "cause" epilepsy, but rather it unmasks the tendency for seizures. The question of whether an apparently normal person who has their first seizure after sleep deprivation has epilepsy or not is often difficult to answer. These persons are in the "gray zone," since most of these persons tend to have subsequent seizures.

As for how much sleep deprivation is needed to bring out a seizure, it may not take much. It is common to see persons with their first seizure after staying up all night at a party, etc.

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