Can video game seizures lead to epilepsy?Posted: 05/23/2011
If you have lots of seizures while playing video games, could you develop spontaneous seizures that you didn’t have before? On the one hand, neurologists say that seizures beget more seizures, and on the other, they say reflex seizures do not lead to epilepsy, the tendency to experience spontaneous seizures. To approach this question we look at the concept that researchers call kindling. Kindling is the process whereby repeatedly provoked seizures become more severe and over time lower the seizure threshold.
To study seizures, scientists have provoked them in animals by applying shocks or chemical compounds directly onto the brains of laboratory animals. Researchers discovered decades ago that if they provoked repeated seizures, the seizures would eventually become more prolonged and would affect more of the brain. Over time the animal would be more likely to experience seizures with less provocation because of changes that occur in the neural cells and circuits from repeated seizures. In some studies, with some animals, eventually the animals began experiencing spontaneous seizures. Many variables can affect the outcome of these studies: the species, the age of the animal, the frequency and duration of seizure-provoking protocols, the type of seizures experienced, among others.
Whether or not humans could eventually develop epilepsy from provoked seizures is a controversial issue; it can only be hypothesized because we don’t subject humans to the risks and discomforts of seizures for the purpose of advancing research. A relevant case study cited in a 2004 study of seizures and behavior documents the possibility of a comparable progression in people: the development of increasingly severe panic attacks provoked by cocaine, evolving eventually to spontaneous attacks occurring without administration of cocaine.
So what about the effect of repeated video game seizures? Could they lead to spontaneous seizures? Everything I’ve read about photosensitive seizures states that reflex seizures do not lead to the emergence of epilepsy. However, researchers even ten years ago could not have predicted the ubiquity and intensity of provocative visual stimuli in modern life, and those studying kindling have not considered the possibility that visually induced seizures could occur repeatedly, which could happen if they are not being detected. A 2007 paper in Epilepsia, reviewing the evidence on the relevance to humans of kindling and spontaneous seizures, considers electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) the only likely scenario for repeated induced seizures.
I propose that the kindling question is quite relevant to humans precisely because of the large number of visually induced seizures that could occur in a single individual, especially if the seizures aren’t detected.** If we don’t recognize video game seizures in our kids, and the seizures continue, what kind of long-term damage is being done? Shouldn’t someone study this? And wouldn’t seizure-free games be a good idea?
** See my 6/2 post Reconsidering “kindling” for an explanation of why I’d like to retract this sentence.