Rethinking Healthcare

Study supports link between epilepsy and psychosis

Study supports link between epilepsy and psychosis

Posting in Science

A study of nearly 10,000 Finnish families finds that people with epilepsy are at greater risk for suffering from psychosis, and suggests that the two disorders share common structural and genetic origins.

According to the Mayo Clinic and the National Institutes of Health:

Epilepsy is a disorder that results from the surges in electrical signals inside the brain, causing recurring seizures.

Psychotic disorders are severe mental disorders that cause abnormal thinking and perceptions. People with psychoses lose touch with reality.

Both have to do with havoc in the brain, but one's a neurological issue and the other is a mental illness. Totally different ballgames, right? Maybe not, says new research.

A study in the May issue of the journal Biological Psychiatry suggests that these disorders come from common brain structure or genetic abnormalities.

A group of European researchers examined nearly 10,000 families with children born in Helsinki, Finland between 1947 and 1990. They looked at the psychiatric and neurological histories of both the children and their parents.

Here are their report's main findings:

  • People with epilepsy had 5.5 times the usual risk of having a psychotic disorder, almost 8.5 times the risk of having schizophrenia (a type of psychotic disorder) and 6.3 times the risk of having bipolar disorder.
  • Individuals whose parents had epilepsy had twice the risk of developing psychosis, compared with individuals with two non-epileptic parents.
  • People whose parents had psychosis had 2.7 times the chance of having epilepsy, compared with individuals with two parents without psychosis.

"Our evidence that epilepsy and psychotic illness may cluster within some families indicates that these disorders may be more closely linked than previously thought," said the study's first author Dr. Mary Clarke in a press release, "We hope that this epidemiological evidence may contribute to the on-going efforts to disentangle the complex pathways that lead to these serious illnesses."

Clarke's report isn't the first to suggest this link, but the size of the of the study gives a new certainty to the connection.

Past studies have looked at the two disorders as a chicken-or-egg kind of thing, struggling to determine which came first. This study suggests that one doesn't preclude the other, epilepsy and psychosis more likely share common origins.

What's interesting about this to me is that it supports the idea of mental illnesses as physical illnesses. No one blames a person's character when they have a seizure, but schizophrenia can have a more shameful connotation, as if it's a personal weakness. If researchers can better pinpoint the commonalities of the two not only will we gain better insight into the disorders individually, we'll have further evidence to fight stigma against mental illness.

Photo: Thierry Ehrmann/Flickr

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Audrey Quinn

Contributing Writer

Audrey Quinn is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist focused on health, tech and the economy. Her radio stories can be heard on Marketplace, Studio 360, PRI's The World, NPR's Latino USA, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Believer Magazine podcast. In addition to her work with CBS Interactive she produces multimedia science stories for online publications and is a teaching assistant at the Transom Story Workshop. Her investigative work has been awarded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure