Jessica Reynolds loves all aspects of science, especially astronomy and black holes. She discovered this fascination while taking a high school Physics course. She makes a living by writing, currently for scientific poster printer postersession.com, a division of MegaPrint.
Now I understand the technical definition of disease (something that causes “dis ease,” or that varies from the normal organized structure in a living organism), but the technical definition is not how most people understand it. People relate “disease” with “sick” and thus with “stay away ‘cause I don’t wanna catch what you have.”
So I thought that if I could educate a few of you about the science behind a seizure, I would be playing my part in changing the conversation to help people understand what a seizure (and epilepsy) really is.
If you’ve spent any time learning about seizures, you’ve heard the phrase, “seizures are a lightning storm in the brain.” But this is only a (rather poor) analogy, so let me explain to you what’s really going on.
Your brain is made up of mostly neurons. A neuron is basically a cell with a long tail. Each of these neurons is separated from the others by a small gap (so they’re not touching). Imagine your brain filled with millions of these little neurons, all separated. How do they communicate?
Your brain sends an electrical impulse down the neuron’s tail, triggering a chemical response. The chemical that the neuron shoots out jumps over the gap to the next neuron, passing on the message. What is this chemical? It varies. Some types of chemicals you might recognize include dopamine and epinephrine. The type of chemical a neuron releases varies from neuron to neuron and the section of the brain it lives in. For example, a neuron living in the motor skills section of your brain will likely release a different chemical than a neuron in the ocular part of the brain.
A seizure occurs when neurons start shooting off electrical impulses (and chemicals) in random order. Imagine all these neurons sending messages at the same time in the mobility portion of your brain. That’s why you often see people “seizing” during this process.
But remember that you have different parts of your brain, so not all seizures look the same. For example, there’s one seizure called an absence seizure. This is exactly what it sounds like: the person is simply absent. You can waive your hand in front of their eyes and they won’t acknowledge you.
Why Does This Happen?
Your best guess is as good as mine. Doctors can sometimes tell you what initiated a seizure (high fever, traumatic brain experience), but they can’t tell you why the neurons behave how they do. Scientists and doctors are still searching for this answer. One day they may find it, but until then seizures cannot be cured (although they can be controlled).
So What is “Epilepsy?”
Epilepsy is just a term to name a person who experiences seizures regularly, but only when those seizures aren’t caused by external stimuli. For example, if you have three seizures in the same week because you were really sick and had a high fever, you don’t have epilepsy. The temperature clearly caused the seizures.
Are seizures a “disease?” I really don’t think so, and I hope by explaining the basics of a seizure you agree with me. Seizures are a phenomenon we don’t completely understand. Until we do, I suggest using some other, less suggestive language.