“Sudden unexpected death in epilepsy” is a rare complication that is estimated to claim some 3,000 lives in the U.S. every year—many of them people under the age of 40.

Now a study by neurologists Dr. Andrew Schomer (Fellow ’16) and Dr. Mark Quigg (Engr ’84, Med ’90, Res ’94) of the School of Medicine points toward a better understanding of why it most often strikes during sleep. 

The researchers examined cardiac and brain wave data from patients hospitalized for inpatient epilepsy monitoring who experienced seizures while asleep during their hospital stay. They measured sleep depth five minutes before the seizure and heart rate after a seizure. While heart rate typically slows when people are asleep, the researchers found that in these patients, greater sleep depth before a seizure predicted a slowing of the heart rate after the seizure. Because a too-slow heartbeat is a risk factor for sudden cardiac arrest, the findings from this study suggest an important area for further research on the connection between sleep and the epilepsy complication.

In related research, Dr. Quigg and associate professor Bijoy Kindu of the Department of Radiology and Medical Imaging conducted a small pilot study using a sophisticated imaging technique to precisely identify the area of the brain causing seizures. While the study was small, if further research confirms its effectiveness, this imaging technique could provide surgeons a tool for precision-targeted surgical treatment of epilepsy.