Epilepsy is a condition of the central nervous system that primarily causes seizures. In 2015, 1.5% of the U.S. population had active epilepsy: 3 million adults and 470,000 children. Worldwide, over 50 million people live with the condition, making it one of the most common brain disorders. Epilepsy does not discriminate; both males and females of any race can develop it.
What causes epilepsy?
In around half of people with epilepsy, the cause of the condition is unknown. In many, though, the cause can be identified. Some factors that may cause epilepsy include:
- Genetics. Epilepsy can be passed from mother or father to child.
- Blow to the head. If you’ve experienced head trauma in a sports accident, car crash, or severe fall, you may develop epilepsy as a result.
- Brain tumor or stroke. Many people with brain issues have epilepsy, as brain function is affected during a stroke and with the presence of a tumor.
- Prenatal injury. If a mother’s baby is somehow harmed in the womb, it can develop a brain condition such as epilepsy.
Smoking during pregnancy
Some scientists think that smoking during pregnancy can also cause epilepsy in childhood. It’s well known that when a mother smokes during pregnancy, her baby is at risk for a number of health problems, including premature birth, birth defects, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). But it turns out that smoking during pregnancy may also be linked to the development of childhood epilepsy, according to a few studies.
Two studies proving a link
One study examined medical data from two groups (cohorts) of children born at two separate hospitals in Denmark. The first cohort consisted of 25,196 children, while the second was made up of 10,400 children. Scientists then compared their medical data, which included statistics on exposure to tobacco and alcohol during pregnancy, with a second dataset on febrile seizures. Febrile seizures are a type of seizure caused by a high fever in children that has been linked to epilepsy–children who have a history of simple febrile seizures have a 1 in 50 chance of developing epilepsy at some point in their lives, while kids with a history of complex febrile seizures have a 1 in 20 risk.
In the first cohort, the scientists found that children exposed in the womb to ten or more cigarettes a day had an increased risk of febrile seizures. In the second cohort however, they found no association.
A second study found a much stronger link between epilepsy in childhood and smoking during pregnancy. Researchers at King’s College London decided to examine the potential relationship between childhood epilepsy and mothers’ tobacco use while pregnant. The scientists focused on a particular type of epilepsy called Benign Childhood Epilepsy with Centro-temporal Spikes (BECTS), which makes up 23% of all childhood epilepsy cases. After a period of study, the scientists were able to narrow down an environmental risk factor for BECTS–smoking during pregnancy. They also discovered that a certain gene called CHRNA5 was associated with risk of childhood epilepsy, variations in which have been linked to dependence on nicotine as well as lung disease caused by tobacco use.
Specifically, the researchers discovered that children of mothers who smoked while pregnant had a nearly four-fold increased risk of developing BECTS, proving a solid link between tobacco smoking and epilepsy in childhood. The scientists published their research in The Lancet in July 2020.
From the data we have, it appears that smoking during pregnancy can, in fact, increase a child’s risk of developing epilepsy. If the risk of birth defects isn’t enough to dissuade mothers from smoking while pregnant, perhaps the results of these two studies will encourage them to quit.