Using lasers to stop epilepsy

More than 2 million adults in the U.S. have epilepsy, and 150,000 more will develop the condition each year. Usually, medication can control seizures but about 30 percent of patients do not respond.

Now, patients have a new treatment option that uses lasers to stop the seizures.

For eight years, 30-year-old Nicole Dehn couldn't drive. In 2005 she had a seizure while driving and lost her license.

"I was very, very depressed, yes. I mean it's a huge let down," she said.

Nicole had her first epileptic seizure when she was just six months old and they got progressively worse. When medication failed, her only option was an invasive brain surgery that usually takes months to recover from.

"You actually remove a piece of the skull temporarily and then the surgeon has to go and physically remove or cut away the epileptic,” Jerry Shih, Director, Florida May Clinic Comprehensive Epilepsy Program, explained.

But Nicole opted for a different type of procedure called laser thermal ablation. A small hole is made in the back of the head and a laser probe is inserted into the skull. Using MRI guidance, heat from the laser then destroys the tissue causing the seizures.

"We're very excited, she is excited,” Shih said. “our patients have really all enjoyed having this option for them as a procedure.”

Eight months after her procedure, Nicole is back to driving, and has been seizure-free ever since.

"Having my license back now, everything has just totally changed, new doors, new opportunities,” Nicole said.

The therapy is already FDA approved for treatment of tumors in other parts of the body such as the liver and kidney.

Only recently has it been available for the brain. About 14 patients have undergone this treatment to date at the mayo clinic.

Researchers say that so far their first five patients all had positive results which included shorter recovery times, decreased number of seizures, and possibly less cost than the standard surgery.

The research is ongoing, but doctor shih hopes that one day the laser thermal ablation will be the standard of care for epileptic patients.


REPORT: MB # 3761

BACKGROUND: Epilepsy is a medical condition that produces seizures affecting a variety of mental and physical functions. It is also referred to as a seizure disorder. When a person has two or more seizures, they are considered to have epilepsy. A seizure happens when a brief, strong jolt of electrical activity affects the brain. One in ten adults will have a seizure at some point during their lifetime. Seizures can last a few seconds or up to a few minutes. Symptoms can include loss of consciousness, convulsions, lip smacking, jerking movements of arms and legs, and blank staring. (Source:
EPILEPSY & THE BRAIN: The brain is the source of epilepsy. Symptoms can affect any part of the body, but the electrical events that produce the symptoms occur in the brain. The location of that event, how long the event lasts, and the extent of its reach within the tissue of the brain all have profound effects. These factors determine the character of the seizure, the social consequences, and its impact on the patient. (Source:
NEW TECHNOLOGY: Treating brain lesions are risky. The blood-brain barrier, which normally protects the brain from harmful chemicals, also keeps out many types of drugs. Now doctors can offer people with epilepsy another option. It is a laser technology that utilizes light energy to destroy soft tissue, including damaged tissue and tumor. The energy from the laser is delivered to the lesion using a laser probe. When light is delivered through the laser probe, temperatures in the target area rise and destroy the unwanted tissue. The procedure is guided by MRI images, so it can provide precise targeting. The patient is wide awake throughout the procedure. It doesn't require radiation or a skull flap (the large skull opening in traditional craniotomies). It is minimally invasive and causes minimal or no pain during or after the procedure. It also does not limit use of additional or other treatment options. (Source:, Dr. Jerry Shih)

Cynthia Weiss
Mayo Clinic Florida

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