Understanding Functional Seizures In Order to Better Treat Patients

January 26th 2021

Contemporary Clinic ® interviewed Lea Davis, of Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the Vanderbilt Genetics Institute, on what functional seizures are and why better understanding them can help to address medical stigma for patients who experience them.

Contemporary Clinic® interviewed Lea Davis, an associate professor of medicine in the Department of Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and an investigator in the Vanderbilt Genetics Institute, on a recent study she co-authored that was published in JAMA Network Open on the epidemiology of functional seizures among adults treated at a university hospital.

During the discussion, Davis explains what functional seizures are and why better understanding them can help to address medical stigma for patients who experience them.

Alana Hippensteele: So, Dr. Davis, what are functional seizures, and why were you and your research team interested in investigating them further?

Lea Davis: So functional seizures are seizures that occur in the absence of aberrant electrical activity happening in the brain, which is typical of epileptic seizures. Functional seizures have been really understudied.

So, I actually became interested in understanding more about functional seizures and their etiology (so what causes them), what other kinds of conditions are they associated with, [and] what's the biology behind the development of functional seizures after hearing a story on NPR that was really the patient perspective. So, they interviewed several people who experienced functional seizures, and I think the thing that spoke to me the most in this patient population was the stigma that they experienced even within the medical system.

So, I think that actually speaks to me at a personal level. As a kid, my mom had Crohn disease and while Crohn disease is really well understood now, back in the early 90s it was not so well understood, and she actually had doctors telling her that it was all in her head, and that she needed to see a psychiatrist instead of an internal medicine doctor.

And so, hearing [that] patients [are] kind of still experiencing difficulty with medical stigma and the lack of knowledge on functional seizures, it occurred to me that this was something that a) we really needed a lot more research on, and b) we were actually in a really good position to be able to do this research at Vanderbilt because we have an incredible neurology department and a really active research relationship with them.

So, I basically contacted some colleagues in neurology and said, ‘Hey is this something that you guys would be willing to consult with us on and work with us in a collaboration,’ and they said yes, and so that's where we went.

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