Brain on Fire: What’s causing the seizures?


In class we are reading and discussing the first part of Susannah Cahalan’s memoir, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness. In the novel, Susannah experiences a series of strange symptoms, and the doctors are unable to determine a diagnosis. One of the symptoms Susannah experiences is seizures. So what causes these seizures? Currently, I don’t know! And at this point in the book, neither do the doctors.

Seizures are often experienced with epileptic patients, but can be caused by other things such as a stroke, alcohol use, high body temperature (fever), and infection. One common type of seizure originates in the temporal lobe, which is responsible for hearing, memory, speech, emotional responses, and recognizing and understanding objects we see. There are three common types of seizures.

Tonic-Clonic seizures are what first comes to mind when talking about seizures. These seizures start in the temporal lobe, but then spread to involve the whole brain. The arms, core, and legs stiffen in an extended position. This is the tonic phase. The body then jerks, which is the clonic phase.

Another type of seizure is a simple partial seizure. This type of seizure involves small areas of the temporal lobe and brain, such as the amygdala, which is the emotional control center for the brain, and the hippocampus, which is primarily responsible for learning and memory. “Simple” means that the patient’s level of consciousness is not altered during the seizure. This type of seizure causes abnormal sensations, such as déjà vu, a feeling of familiarity, or jamais vu, a feeling of unfamiliarity.

The third type of seizure is a complex partial seizure. These seizures, contrary to simple partial seizures, impair the consciousness of the patient and his or her ability to interact normally with the environment. Some symptoms include motionless staring, automatic movements of the hands or mouth, unusual speech, and a diminished ability to respond to others.

In the novel, Susannah shows symptoms of all three types of seizures. She experiences the classic tonic-clonic seizure when she is with her boyfriend, Stephen, she experiences abnormal sensations, and she has periods of time where she stares off into space, reports having a ‘foggy’ mind, and smacks her lips. Although we haven’t finished reading the book yet, these symptoms point to unusual activity in her temporal lobe, and the doctors will hopefully use this symptom to figure out what’s causing the seizures!

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