Comorbidities Affecting Children with Epilepsy – Not a Novel Entity but New Insights Could Improve Holistic Care

European Neurological Review, 2016;11(1):16–7 DOI:


Children with epilepsy commonly suffer additional and significant neurological co-morbidities. Epilepsy syndromes can be associated with specific cognitive and behavioural phenotypes which can aid diagnosis. Early recognition and intervention of both epilepsy and the associated comorbidities can lead to improved neurocognitive outcomes. Intrinsic connectivity networks are influenced by multiple modalities including the stage of brain maturation in early onset epilepsies and epileptiform activity with resultant impact on neurocognitive function.
Keywords: Epilepsy, children, comorbidities, neurocognition, behaviour, neuropsychiatric, genetics, intrinsic connectivity networks
Disclosure: Tandokazi Quvile and Jo Wilmshurst have nothing to disclose in relation to this article. This article is a short opinion piece and has not been submitted to external peer reviewers. No funding was received in the publication of this article.
Open Access: This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License, which permits any noncommercial use, distribution, adaptation, and reproduction provided the original author(s) and source are given appropriate credit.
Received: March 20, 2016 Published Online: April 20, 2016
Correspondence: Jo M Wilmshust, Paediatric Neurology Department, Department of Paediatrics and Child Health, Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, Klipfontein Rd, Cape Town, South Africa 7700. E:

Children with epilepsy rarely suffer the condition in isolation. Cognitive, behavioural and psychiatric issues, which manifest as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), intellectual disability (ID), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), depression, unstable mood, and suicidality, are reported in 11–40% of those affected.1–4These diverse comorbidities, which complicate the care and outcome of children, are often as much of a management challenge as the epilepsy itself, leading to significant health resource utilisation.5This is compounded by multiple influences, including the underlying aetiology for the epilepsy, the baseline health of the child, socioeconomic status, access to care, the age of onset of the events, the frequency of seizures, the antiepileptic drugs used, and genetic make-up. Whilst there is awareness of these comorbidities, this does not always translate into clinical practice. The concept that people with epilepsy need multidisciplinary care is novel for many services which focus on control of seizures.3Intervention for associated comorbidities is more likely to be reactive and opportunities for early intervention or prevention of exacerbation of symptoms lacking.4Limited resources and capacity are additional compounding factors.

Behavioural phenotypes, however, can be useful through supporting epilepsy diagnoses, for example aggression and impulsivity in children with ring chromosome 20 aberration, rigid personalities and autistic traits in girls with PCDH19mutations, and severe ID and Rett syndromelike features in girls with CDKL5 mutations.11This is helpful in resource poor settings where access to genetic studies is limited. Closure of syndromic diagnoses influences care and counseling.

The World Health Organization Mental Health gap guideline includes epilepsy.6Whilst contentious due to concern that it further stigmatizes the disease, there is no doubt that recognising and acknowledging the associated cognitive, behavioural and psychiatric deficits early on in a child’s life, leads to better holistic care for the child.4

There are situations were early intervention can positively impact and reduce disease burden. West syndrome, a disorder consisting of epileptic spasms, developmental delay and hypsarrhythmia, carries a worse cognitive outcome the longer the lead-time to treatment intervention.10

The combined disorders of epilepsy, ASD and ID are not infrequent and this is especially so for children with epileptic encephalopathy.7,8Early recognition and therapy targeting social deficits in children with epilepsy and ASD may result in improved cognitive and developmental outcomes.8Treating epilepsy and even interictal discharges can also result in improved cognitive profiles in affected children.7 Up to 400 genes are linked to ASD, 50% of which are involved in synaptic plasticity, which impacts on brain connectivity. A number of these ASD associated genes influence the balance of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate, both of which are important in the pathogenesis of epilepsy.9

Progress in the field of genetics has expanded understandings of various conditions, increasing knowledge of disease pathogeneses, how genetic mutations influence the clinical expression in the child, as well as the epilepsy semiology and the other comorbidities of the disease.9,12,13 Tuberous sclerosis complex is a good example of this. Understanding the role of mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) in the expression of the disease has led to targeted therapies and evidence that these interventions benefit disease expression across multiple areas from tumour growth to epilepsy control and even to neurocognition.14,15 Early and appropriate targeted therapy for affected children enables optimal outcomes in both seizure control but also cognitive outcome.

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Keywords: Epilepsy, children, comorbidities, neurocognition, behaviour, neuropsychiatric, genetics, intrinsic connectivity networks