Epilepsy and Genetics: Can You Inherit Epilepsy?

January 13, 2011

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By Daniel Hoch, PhD, MD
Editor, AAN.com for Patients and Caregivers

One of the most common questions I get from people with epilepsy who are raising a family is whether their children may have the disorder.

An article in Neurology Today® discusses progress in understanding the molecular basis of epilepsy. The article describes using techniques called genome-wide association and copy number variation to compare people with epilepsy to thousands of people without epilepsy.

While there are probably many differences in genetics between the two groups, the researchers found two differences associated with the epilepsy patients. It's not entirely clear how these differences in genes and the proteins they produce contribute to epilepsy, but the authors of the paper suggest the genes may impact the way brain cell connections are made.

While research like this shows we're coming to understand more about the reasons for epilepsy, except in a few cases, we are still a long way from understanding how, if at all, it is inherited.

My advice to my patients is based on common sense. Clearly, some kinds of epilepsy run in families. Australian clinical researcher and epileptologist, Samuel F. Berkovic, MD, has taken advantage of this fact to describe several rare, inheritable forms of epilepsy.

However, without a clear pattern in your family, it's unlikely that your epilepsy will be passed on to one of your children. Unlikely, but not impossible. Therefore, I tell many of my patients to consider taking part in genetic studies of epilepsy. The Clinical Trials Registry at the National Institutes of Health is one good place to learn about the opportunities.

You can also learn more about epilepsy genetics at the Epilepsy Foundation of America.

While understanding your own genetic makeup can be very valuable, there are risks to consider. I recommend this Neurology Now® magazine article for a discussion of those risks.