You never know when the next seizure will strike if you have epilepsy. You could lose consciousness while swimming, or driving a car. The fear of these typically unpredictable episodes can shadow every part of your life—from work to social activities.
Epileptic auras sometimes occur for some, but detecting a seizure before it occurs is rare. Imagine the precautionary steps you could take if you knew a seizure was coming. A few companies are developing products that could one day revolutionize the detection and treatment of seizures for the estimated 2 million Americans living with epilepsy.
Today you can buy a few different devices that identify when you’re having a seizure and call for help. For example, the SmartWatch is a wristwatch-like monitor that detects shaking motions. The watch will immediately send a warning signal to your family members or caregiver if you have a seizure in your sleep.
Another device, called EpDetect, turns your smartphone into a seizure detection system. It sends a report of your health and your GPS location to a family member or friend when you have a seizure.
The medical alert bracelet is a much lower-tech option that’s been around for many years. It contains emergency contact phone numbers and information about your condition. Information like the type of epilepsy you have and your medications help medical personnel know how to treat you in case you can’t speak for yourself.
During a seizure, electrical signals between nerve cells in the brain fire uncontrollably. Symptoms include convulsions, rigid muscles, and a loss of consciousness. In the past, doctors believed seizures occurred at random and couldn’t be predicted. But they’ve discovered that there is a series of readable events in the brain leading up to a seizure.
One way to pinpoint these events is with electroencephalography (EEG). A machine measures electrical activity in the brain. Electrodes attached to the scalp turn electrical signals from the brain into readable patterns.
EEG is currently used to diagnose seizures that have already happened. But researchers are discovering that it also can be used to identify abnormal patterns in brain behavior before a seizure occurs.
The challenge has been to make EEG practical for everyday use. It wouldn’t be realistic to carry around a cumbersome machine wherever you go. So companies are developing small, portable devices that you can comfortably wear 24 hours a day.
The tools scientists are studying to predict seizures detect abnormal brain waves or changes in nervous system measurements—like heart rate and breathing. Then they use mathematical formulas to calculate the odds of having a seizure.
Here are a few ideas being tested for predicting seizures.
Researchers at MIT are working on a wristband that measures skin conductance—how easily an electrical current travels through the skin. Conductance is a measure of how much you’re sweating. Researchers have discovered that conductance spikes just before someone has a seizure. The device can tell how severe a seizure is, and it may eventually be able to predict one.
There are already smartphone apps to help you track your seizures and see how well your medicine is working to treat them. Now, companies are working on smartphone apps that will predict seizures. One product in development, called Dialog, could help people with epilepsy get a better handle on their condition.
Dialog is made up of a small bracelet that you wear on your wrist, or a patch that you stick on your skin. The device continually records your temperature, pulse rate, and hydration level, and communicates these measures to the app using Bluetooth technology.
By analyzing these data, the app alerts you to a possible seizure so you can take actions to prevent it. It also collects data during the seizure to give you more insight into your condition.
Other Seizure Prediction Devices
Researchers have been studying an implanted device that monitors brain activity to pinpoint when a seizure might occur. One Australian study tested a device that consisted of a unit implanted in the chest with electrodes running to the brain. The unit sends out a signal to a handheld device, which flashes red if a seizure is imminent. In the study, the device accurately predicted a seizure about 65 percent of the time. Researchers say more studies are needed to figure out who might be the best candidates for this device.
Current wearable devices can call for help while you’re having a seizure, but they can’t tell you whether you’re about to have one. These new products being developed might one day be able to predict a seizure before it happens. This warning system could help people with epilepsy avoid potentially dangerous situations. They might even be able to avoid a seizure entirely by taking medication before it strikes.
It’s important to remember that all of these technologies are still under investigation. It might be several years before you can buy a tool that will predict seizures. For now, your best option is to follow the treatment plan your doctor recommends. This may include medicine, surgery, and other therapies.