Photosensitive epilepsy


Photosensitive epilepsy is a form of epilepsy in which seizures are triggered by visual stimuli that form patterns in time or space, such as flashing lights, bold, regular patterns, or regular moving patterns.


Persons with PSE experience epileptiform seizures upon exposure to certain visual stimuli. The exact nature of the stimulus or stimuli that triggers the seizures varies from one patient to another, as does the nature and severity of the resulting seizures (ranging from brief absence seizures to full tonic-clonic seizures). Many PSE patients experience an “aura” or feel odd sensations before the seizure occurs, and this can serve as a warning to a patient to move away from the trigger stimulus. The visual trigger for a seizure is generally cyclic, forming a regular pattern in time or space. Flashing lights or rapidly changing or alternating images (as in clubs, around emergency vehicles, in action movies or television programs, etc.) are an example of patterns in time that can trigger seizures, and these are the most common triggers. Static spatial patterns such as stripes and squares may trigger seizures as well, even if they do not move. In some cases, the trigger must be both spatially and temporally cyclic, such as a certain moving pattern of bars. Several characteristics are common in the trigger stimuli of many PSE patients. The patterns are usually high in luminance contrast (bright flashes of light alternating with darkness, or white bars against a black background). Contrasts in color alone (without changes in luminance) are rarely triggers for PSE. Some patients are more affected by patterns of certain colors than by patterns of other colors. The exact spacing of a pattern in time or space is important and varies from one individual to another: a patient may readily experience seizures when exposed to lights that flash seven times per second, but may be unaffected by lights that flash twice per second or twenty times per second. Stimuli that fill the entire visual field are more likely to cause seizures than those that appear in only a portion of the visual field. Stimuli perceived with both eyes are usually much more likely to cause seizures than stimuli seen with one eye only (which is why covering one eye may allow patients to avoid seizures when presented with visual challenges). Some patients are more sensitive with their eyes closed; others are more sensitive with their eyes open. Sensitivity is increased by alcohol consumption, sleep deprivation, illness, and other forms of stress.


Diagnosis may be made by noting the correlation between exposure to specific visual stimuli and seizure activity. More precise investigation can be carried out by combining an EEG with a device producing Intermittent Photic Stimulation (IPS). The IPS device produces specific types of stimuli that can be controlled and adjusted with precision. The testing physician adjusts the IPS device and looks for characteristic anomalies in the EEG, such as photoparoxysmal response (PPR), that are consistent with PSE and/or may herald the onset of seizure activity. The testing is halted before a seizure actually occurs. Sometimes diagnostic indicators consistent with PSE can be found through provocative testing with IPS, and yet no seizures may ever occur in real-life situations. Many people will show PSE-like abnormalities in brain activity with sufficiently aggressive stimulation, but they never experience seizures and are not considered to have PSE.


Some PSE patients have trigger stimuli that are so specific that they are never likely to encounter them in real life. Their PSE may only be discovered by accident in an unusual situation or during examination for other complaints.


No cure is available for PSE, although the sensitivity of some patients may diminish over time. Medical treatment is available to reduce sensitivity, with sodium valproate being commonly prescribed. Patients can also learn to avoid situations in which they might be exposed to stimuli that trigger seizures and/or take steps to diminish their sensitivity (as by covering one eye) if they are unavoidably exposed. These actions together can reduce the risk of seizures to almost zero for many PSE patients.