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Sudden unexpected death in epilepsy: mechanisms, prevalence, and prevention

Surges, Rainera; Sander, Josemir W.b,c,d

doi: 10.1097/WCO.0b013e3283506714
SEIZURE DISORDERS: Edited by John Stern

Purpose of review Sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP) is a fatal complication of epilepsy with incidence rates of up to nine per 1000 patient-years in candidates for epilepsy surgery. Ongoing collaborative research is aiming to improve assessment of individual SUDEP risk and to develop preventive measures based on pathophysiological considerations. This review focuses on novel findings in humans and animal models related to pathophysiology, risk factors and prevention of SUDEP.

Recent findings Potential mechanisms include cardiac arrhythmia, postictal cardiomyopathy, depressed autonomic function and seizure-related respiratory failure. Electrocardiography predictors of sudden cardiac death have been described in people with chronic epilepsy, but their significance for SUDEP remains to be confirmed. Epidemiological risk factors comprise male sex, young age at epilepsy onset, symptomatic cause, longer duration of epilepsy, frequent convulsive seizures and polytherapy. Efficacious adjunctive antiepileptic medication may reduce the risk of SUDEP.

Summary Novel clinical features may help to define better the individual risk of SUDEP. Potentially therapeutic strategies including pharmacological modulation of respiratory arrest and implantation of cardiac devices could reduce the risk of SUDEP in some individuals. Antiepileptic drugs lower the risk, stressing the importance of successful seizure control for prevention.

aDepartment of Epileptology, University Clinics Bonn, Bonn, Germany

bDepartment of Clinical and Experimental Epilepsy, UCL Institute of Neurology, London

cEpilepsy Society, Chalfont Centre for Epilepsy, Chalfont, UK

dSEIN – Epilepsy Institute in the Netherlands Foundation, Heemstede, The Netherlands

Correspondence to Professor Ley Sander, Box 29, UCL Institute of Neurology, Queen Square, London WC1N 3BG, UK. Tel: +44 20 3448 8622; fax: +44 20 3448 8615; e-mail:

© 2012 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.