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Prog Brain Res. 2005;150:271-86.

Consciousness and epilepsy: why are patients with absence seizures absent?

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Department of Neurology, Yale University School of Medicine, 333 Cedar Street, New Haven, CT 06520, USA.


Epileptic seizures cause dynamic, reversible changes in brain function and are often associated with loss of consciousness. Of all seizure types, absence seizures lead to the most selective deficits in consciousness, with relatively little motor or other manifestations. Impaired consciousness in absence seizures is not monolithic, but varies in severity between patients and even between episodes in the same patient. In addition, some aspects of consciousness may be more severely involved than other aspects. The mechanisms for this variability are not known. Here we review the literature on human absence seizures and discuss a hypothesis for why effects on consciousness may be variable. Based on behavioral studies, electrophysiology, and recent neuroimaging and molecular investigations, we propose absence seizures impair focal, not generalized brain functions. Impaired consciousness in absence seizures may be caused by focal disruption of information processing in specific corticothalamic networks, while other networks are spared. Deficits in selective and varying cognitive functions may lead to impairment in different aspects of consciousness. Further investigations of the relationship between behavior and altered network function in absence seizures may improve our understanding of both normal and impaired consciousness.

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