Epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological disorder worldwide and occurs across all ages. As there can be different causes, different seizure types, and a range of cognitive and or behavioural comorbidities, there is increasing recognition of epilepsy as a group of conditions and use of the term “epilepsies”. Childhood-onset epilepsies (COEs) are one of the most prevalent neurological conditions in children, occurring in 0.5-1. In addition to the direct and immediate consequences to quality of life for these individuals, epilepsy during childhood has potentially far-reaching effects into adulthood, even if seizures are well-controlled.
As an illustration of the importance and magnitude of the issue, eighty percent of children with epilepsy have associated cognitive and behavioural comorbidities such as learning difficulties, autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. These are often poorly recognised and undertreated but may result in disabling consequences for the child and their family, especially if comorbidities are severe. Importantly, thirty percent of COEs are unresponsive to current treatments and thirty percent continue to have seizures into adulthood. This has a direct impact on educational and socioeconomic outcomes for these children, and tragically they display a higher risk of mortality. Remarkably, in the majority of children with epilepsy globally, including 112,000 children in the UK, the cause of their epilepsy is unknown.
These sobering statistics urgently demand redress, in terms of both early diagnosis and improved therapeutic strategies, with lack of both progress and available research funding for COEs a significant area of concern. Because of this, research on COEs is a key priority of a range of organisations including the International League Against Epilepsy and the World Health Organisation.
Our aim, therefore, is to train our cohort of students in research projects which will together produce improved diagnostic methods and a better understanding of how biological mechanisms within cells and circuits in the brain can go awry, resulting in seizures. Ultimately this work will result in improved therapies and outcomes for people with childhood onset epilepsies and their families.