Seizures are periods of abnormal electrical activity in your brain that can cause changes to your:

  • consciousness
  • behavior
  • feeling
  • memory
  • physical movements

The most common cause of seizures is epilepsy, which affects about 3 million adults and 470,000 children in the United States. Epilepsy is characterized by reoccurring seizures not caused by an underlying medical condition, like a high fever or low blood sodium.

Gelastic seizures are a type of seizure nicknamed “laughing seizures” because they’re characterized by uncontrolled laughing or giggling. Read on to learn more about this rare type of seizure.

A gelastic seizure is a rare focal seizure that causes uncontrolled laughing or giggling even in the absence of joy or happiness. A focal seizure is a seizure that begins in one part of your brain as opposed to generalized seizures that develop in your whole brain.

About one-third of gelastic seizures are associated with hypothalamic hamartoma, a noncancerous tumor near your hypothalamus. Your hypothalamus is a part of your brain that has many essential functions like hormone and temperature control.

Another one-third are associated with lesions in the frontal or parietal lobes. Rarely, they can be caused by lesions on other areas, including the occipital lobe.

Gelastic seizures get their name from the Greek word “gelos,” for laughter.

Although gelastic seizures aren’t life threatening, they often don’t respond well to medication. They are associated with other health conditions that can impact the quality of your or your child’s life.

About 60 to 65 percent of people with these seizures have cognitive problems. They’re also highly associated with behavior problems like mood disorders, anxiety, or aggression.

About half of children who experience gelastic seizures go through early puberty due to over-secretion of gonadotropin-releasing hormone and luteinizing hormone. Untreated early puberty often leads to short stature and emotional issues like self-image concerns, as well as other conditions.

Most people who experience gelastic seizures go on to experience other types of seizures.

Gelastic seizures are rare and most likely to be diagnosed in children. Little is known about how common they are, especially in adults, but they tend to develop in early infancy.

Gelastic seizures are often associated with hypothalamic hamartoma, which affects about 1 in 50,000 to 1 in 100,000 children and adolescents. Hypothalamic hamartomas are tumors that are present at birth. So gelastic seizures associated with hypothalamic hamartoma begin during early infancy.

When they occur due to lesions in other areas of the brain, gelastic seizures can begin later during childhood or adulthood.

According to research that grouped people by their sex assigned at birth, males are thought to develop hypothalamic hamartoma about 30 percent more often than females.

As far as researchers currently know, people of all ethnitcities are at equal risk.

The main symptom of gelastic seizures is uncontrolled laughter that usually lasts for 2 to 30 seconds. These bursts of laughter often have a high frequency and can occur dozens of times per day.

When a person having a gelastic seizure laughs, it often sounds forced and unnatural. Laughter often occurs in the absence of joy or happiness and can occur in social situations where laughter may not be appropriate.

Other symptoms that may accompany laughter include:

Gelastic seizures are focal seizures, and the abnormal electrical activity can quickly spread to other areas of the brain, causing other types of seizures.

Gelastic seizure symptoms in toddlers and babies

It can be difficult to recognize gelastic seizures in babies and young children since bursts of laughter may not seem unusual.

Babies may grunt or squirm in an unusual way when having gelastic seizures, and their laughter often stops suddenly. Children and babies may seem confused or tired once their seizure is finished.

Despite seeming happy, most people don’t feel happy during gelastic seizures. People usually remain conscious through the seizure and may feel scared or anxious. A person may also experience:

  • an aura before the onset of their seizure
  • up to dozens of seizures per day
  • automatic behaviors like lip smacking or swallowing
  • butterflies in your stomach or a strange sensation in your chest

Once the seizure has passed, laughter tends to stop abruptly. The person may be confused or sleepy, but they may also feel normal. Some people can experience another type of seizure immediately after a gelastic seizure, like an atonic seizure or tonic-clonic seizure.

Most of the time, gelastic seizures are associated with a noncancerous mass found in your hypothalamus at birth called a hypothalamic hamartoma. But they can also arise from masses in your frontal or temporal lobes.

There are other causes. For example, a 2015 case study examined a man who developed gelastic seizures after a parasitic infection of the brain called neurocysticercosis.

Usually, no particular action is needed if you or somebody you’re with is having a gelastic seizure. You can’t stop the seizure while it’s in progress, so all you can do is stay calm and try to comfort the person.

It’s important to visit a doctor any time you or your child has a seizure for the first time. A seizure can be caused by a variety of medical conditions and requires a prompt diagnosis. Although gelastic seizures themselves don’t usually require medical attention, they can occur with other types of seizures that may cause serious symptoms.

Medical emergency

You should call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room when:

  • a seizure lasts longer than 3 minutes
  • the person doesn’t wake up after their seizure
  • the person is pregnant
  • it’s the person’s first seizure
  • they experience repeated seizures in a row

Gelastic seizures often don’t respond to anti-seizure medications. Your doctor may recommend surgery if you or your child’s seizures are impacting their quality of life and they don’t respond to medication. There’s strong evidence that removing hypothalamic hamartoma can improve symptoms and behavior problems.

A number of surgical techniques may be performed, including:

An electroencephalogram (EEG) is the common tool doctors use to diagnose gelastic seizures. An EEG measures the electrical activity of your brain and looks for unusual patterns.

EEGs often show normal or only slightly unusual activity in people with gelastic seizures, especially when they’re not having a seizure.

An MRI scan can help doctors identify hypothalamic hamartoma.

Gelastic seizures are characterized by uncontrolled laughter or giggling. These seizures are most often caused by noncancerous masses in a part of your brain called the hypothalamus. They often don’t respond to anti-seizure medications, but surgical removal often eases symptoms.

If you think you or your child may be having gelastic seizures, it’s important to visit a doctor for a proper diagnosis and treatment.