Consciousness and epilepsy: why are complex-partial seizures complex?

Englot DJ, Blumenfeld H
Prog Brain Res. 2009 177: 147-70

PMID: 19818900 · PMCID: PMC2901990 · DOI:10.1016/S0079-6123(09)17711-7

Why do complex-partial seizures in temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) cause a loss of consciousness? Abnormal function of the medial temporal lobe is expected to cause memory loss, but it is unclear why profoundly impaired consciousness is so common in temporal lobe seizures. Recent exciting advances in behavioral, electrophysiological, and neuroimaging techniques spanning both human patients and animal models may allow new insights into this old question. While behavioral automatisms are often associated with diminished consciousness during temporal lobe seizures, impaired consciousness without ictal motor activity has also been described. Some have argued that electrographic lateralization of seizure activity to the left temporal lobe is most likely to cause impaired consciousness, but the evidence remains equivocal. Other data correlates ictal consciousness in TLE with bilateral temporal lobe involvement of seizure spiking. Nevertheless, it remains unclear why bilateral temporal seizures should impair responsiveness. Recent evidence has shown that impaired consciousness during temporal lobe seizures is correlated with large-amplitude slow EEG activity and neuroimaging signal decreases in the frontal and parietal association cortices. This abnormal decreased function in the neocortex contrasts with fast polyspike activity and elevated cerebral blood flow in limbic and other subcortical structures ictally. Our laboratory has thus proposed the "network inhibition hypothesis," in which seizure activity propagates to subcortical regions necessary for cortical activation, allowing the cortex to descend into an inhibited state of unconsciousness during complex-partial temporal lobe seizures. Supporting this hypothesis, recent rat studies during partial limbic seizures have shown that behavioral arrest is associated with frontal cortical slow waves, decreased neuronal firing, and hypometabolism. Animal studies further demonstrate that cortical deactivation and behavioral changes depend on seizure spread to subcortical structures including the lateral septum. Understanding the contributions of network inhibition to impaired consciousness in TLE is an important goal, as recurrent limbic seizures often result in cortical dysfunction during and between epileptic events that adversely affects patients' quality of life.

MeSH Terms (12)

Animals Brain Mapping Consciousness Consciousness Disorders Electroencephalography Epilepsy, Temporal Lobe Humans Magnetic Resonance Imaging Nerve Net Rats Seizures Temporal Lobe

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