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JAMA Patient Page
December 3, 2008

Epilepsy Surgery

JAMA. 2008;300(21):2568. doi:10.1001/jama.300.21.2568

Epilepsy is a disorder of brain function that causes recurrent seizures (convulsions). Seizures are due to abnormal bursts of electrical activity in the brain that can affect consciousness, movement, vision, behavior, or speech. Individuals with epilepsy are usually treated by a neurologist (physician specializing in brain and nervous system disorders) who often prescribes medications to control the seizures. Sometimes several different medications need to be tried alone or in combination in order to control seizures. If the seizures are not controlled with 3 anticonvulsant drugs, the seizures are considered intractable (persisting despite treatment) and surgery should be considered. Surgery is most often successful for people who have a specific area of the brain identified as the focus for their seizures. The December 3, 2008, issue of JAMA includes 2 articles about surgical treatment of intractable seizures.


  • Electroencephalogram (EEG) measures brain waves in different areas of the brain and is often done while the person is awake and during sleep, or for prolonged periods of time. An EEG may be performed with the person on or off their prescribed seizure medications. An EEG may also be done during surgery for direct mapping of the affected areas of the brain.

  • Computed tomographic scans (CT scans) are x-ray-based studies that create images of the brain and the skull structures.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a technique that creates images of the anatomical brain structures.

  • Magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) creates an image of the brain based on the unique chemical composition in different areas of the brain.

  • Positron emission tomography (PET) creates an image that shows brain activity in different areas of the brain.

  • Neuropsychological testing can evaluate the effects of epilepsy on cognitive (mental) functions.


  • Removal of a brain tumor or a congenital (inborn) brain defect

  • Removal of the affected area of the brain

  • Dividing some fibers in the brain to prevent spread of the nerve impulses that cause the seizures

  • Vagal stimulation is an option when seizures come from multiple areas in the brain. The surgeon places electrodes in the neck around the vagus nerve (a large nerve that supplies the brain and other major organs). These are attached to a device through which the vagus nerve can be stimulated to prevent seizures.


  • Possibility of eliminating seizures

  • Improved quality of life

  • Decreased risk of accidental death due to seizures



To find this and other JAMA Patient Pages, go to the Patient Page link on JAMA's Web site at Many are available in English, Spanish, and French. A Patient Page on epilepsy was published in the February 4, 2004, issue.

Source: American Academy of Neurology

The JAMA Patient Page is a public service of JAMA. The information and recommendations appearing on this page are appropriate in most instances, but they are not a substitute for medical diagnosis. For specific information concerning your personal medical condition, JAMA suggests that you consult your physician. This page may be photocopied noncommercially by physicians and other health care professionals to share with patients. To purchase bulk reprints, call 312/464-0776.