A continuum of visual sensitivity

Even readings outside the red zone may indicate the need for caution.

If a neurologist tells you that you don’t need to worry about seizures from electronic screen exposure, because you’re not photosensitive, what does that really mean?

It means that when you were tested for your response to a white strobe light, an EEG didn’t detect a particular abnormal electrical pattern in your brain. (I’ve noted some limitations of this procedure elsewhere.) Epileptology looks for yes or no, typically relying on EEG to rule out epilepsy. If yes, possibly medicate; if no, it’s not a case the clinician will pursue.

It does not indicate that bright flashing and/or patterns from electronic screens don’t adversely affect your brain function.

Researchers have gradually come to consensus on exactly what the EEG must look like to indicate photosensitive epilepsy (the photoparoxysmal response): certain spike/wave patterns that appear in both brain hemispheres. In arriving at these criteria, researchers excluded three other types of EEG abnormalities that in prior research “qualified” as a photoparoxysmal response. Epilepsy researchers aren’t certain what the significance of these other abnormalities is, but because the other patterns cannot conclusively be associated with epileptic seizures, there’s little interest in further research.

So these other EEG abnormalities from photic stimulation don’t count, in current neurology practice, and nobody would even tell you about them if they were found in your EEG. You’d be told the EEG was normal, period. But what if these other abnormalities were a sign that neurological function is in fact disturbed by visual stimuli, but not to the point of a seizure?

Let’s say you had one of the three other EEG abnormalities (which you wouldn’t know about, because the EEG was deemed normal). Maybe these indicate that you’re vulnerable to symptoms of a visual-overload-not-to-the-point-of-seizures syndrome. Neurologists have been examining the overlap between epilepsy, photosensitive epilepsy, and migraines. More about this in a future post, but actually there are many overlapping symptoms and correct diagnosis can be difficult. So if video game exposure or photic stimulation produces headaches and visual disturbances, and an inconclusive EEG, it may be that the visual overload is triggering migraines. Or perhaps the exposure is triggering another form of hyperexcitability in the brain’s visual cortex, which has been termed visual stress. While research has been done on this, it’s not part of a conventional neurology practice.

What about patients with more subtle or mood-related symptoms of a visual-overload-not-to-the-point-of-seizures problem? Who is treating these patients? Could be psychiatrists and psychologists, who view altered behavior and cognitive function through the lens of their respective training. Because there’s such a dearth of research of the gray areas of brain dysfunction following exposure to electronic screens, mental health providers have no basis for treating these patients for anything but mental health disorders. It’s clear that more research is needed and that more effects on the brain will be uncovered. One intriguing paper explores the contribution of fluorescent lighting to agoraphobia. The SpongeBob study published last year showed diminished executive function in children who viewed the cartoon.

In her Psychology Today blog, psychiatrist Victoria Dunckley recently posted a compelling piece about the effects on her patients of electronic screen time. She recommends creating a diagnostic category called Electronic Screen Syndrome to identify a dysregulation of mood, attention, or arousal level due to overstimulation of the nervous system by electronic screen media. She has seen dramatic improvements in hundreds of patients’ mood, behavior, and cognition after they go on an “electronic fast.” (Some have underlying psychiatric diagnoses, some don’t.) Maybe these patients were having very subtle seizures from electronic screens. Maybe the effects on the nervous system weren’t quite what epileptology defines as seizures. Either way, many kids exposed to electronic screens are experiencing diminished quality of life (as are their families) for a problem that medicine has not yet acknowledged.

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