Emotions may cause seizures in some people, research finds

Published On:
Monday, February 15, 2010
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Emotions play a strong role in everyday life, and they may even be a cause of seizures for some people, according to ongoing ASU research.

ASU researchers have been looking at the relationship between emotions and seizures not caused by epilepsy.

Nicole Roberts, an assistant psychology professor in the Social and Behavioral Sciences Division at the West campus, leads the research.

People with epilepsy show abnormal brain activity on an EEG test­—which records the brain’s electrical activity—when they have seizures. Those who have non-epileptic seizures have a normal EEG test, she said.

“It’s thought that it’s due to an emotional problem, like they’re having the seizures because of stress,” Roberts said, “but people hadn’t really tested if that was true.”

She has been doing ongoing research since 2006.

Roberts is looking at the connection between emotions and the non-epileptic seizures by using a standard emotion test, where patients look at pictures and listen to noises through headphones.

“We can’t conclude just yet if emotion and stress cause the seizures or not,” she said.

However, she did find that non-epileptic seizure patients have more intense emotional reactions than the epilepsy patients and the control subjects.

The research compares patients with epileptic seizures, non-epileptic seizures, those with physical and emotional trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and those with trauma and no PTSD.

Besides the emotion test, researchers look at patients’ physiological responses and their answers to a questionnaire about how they feel.

“The non-epileptic seizure patients are the most extreme in their emotional responses,” Roberts said.

People with trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder are the second-most severe in their emotional responses.

“A lot of people have stress and a lot of people have trauma, but they don’t have seizures,” Roberts said. “So why these particular people are having seizures still remains quite a mystery.”

Eventually there might be a physiological link to the cause of the seizures, just like depression was thought to only happen mentally and without physical causes, she said.

“I think they might not be looking in the right places in the brain,” Roberts said. “They might have to look deeper into the brain.”

The fact that about 75 percent of the non-epileptic seizure patients are female suggests a possible biological aspect.

“There might be a biological component, but also socially women get stigmatized more easily,” Roberts said.

She said the women tested are often in positions where they experience abuse and can’t fight back as much.

After research shows how emotions differ, Roberts said she wants to look at causes of the non-epileptic seizures and prevention and treatment.

Mike Devine, a graduate student of interdisciplinary studies, is currently working on the research.

One of the biggest challenges, he said, was broadening the sample to different types of people.

“Initially, we were just looking at the people who had the non-epileptic seizures,” Devine said. “What we found was that a lot of these people had had various kinds of trauma.”

In order to rule out physical and emotional trauma as a sole cause of the seizures, these people were added to the research.

Tara Vincelette, a psychology senior, is a research assistant on the research team.

“I grew up with an autistic brother, which kind of made me want to do more research on neurological conditions in general,” she said.

Vincelette is interested in the seizure study because of its neurological aspect, and said she enjoys working with the data.

“It’s also interesting working with the participants, just because of all the conditions … and the individual differences in them,” Vincelette said.

Reach the reporter at reweaver@asu.edu