Conference Coverage

Brain structural changes on MRI predict sudden death in epilepsy

Key clinical point: MRI-detected damage to brain areas mediating autonomic function is implicated in sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP).

Major finding: Two separate studies drew the conclusion that brain structural difference seen on MRI may become an effective screening tool for identifying epilepsy patients at high risk for SUDEP.

Data source: Prospective studies.

Disclosures: Dr. Mueller’s study was funded by grants from UCSF, the Epilepsy Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health. Mr. George’s study was funded by FACES (Finding a CURE for Epilepsy/Seizures). Dr. Mueller and Mr. George reported no potential conflicts of interest related to this topic.

Source: Mueller S et al., AES 2017 abstract 3.205 and George A et al., AES 2017 abstract 3.214



WASHINGTON – It has long been hypothesized that sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP) is the result of damage to areas of the brain that control breathing and heart rate, but two studies presented at the American Epilepsy Society annual meeting identified specific areas where structural changes correlate with SUDEP, suggesting the potential for screening.

In one of two studies that evaluated MRI images in patients who subsequently died of SUDEP and compared them to patients with epilepsy or normal healthy individuals, brainstem volume loss was not only greater in those with SUDEP but there was a correlation between greater volume loss and a shorter period of survival, reported Susanne G. Mueller, MD , a radiologist affiliated with the Center for Imaging of Neurodegenerative Diseases at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

“This is the first evidence that brainstem damage, one of the mechanisms that has been shown to cause SUDEP in animals, could also play a role in people with epilepsy,” Dr. Mueller reported. Although more work is needed, volume loss observed on MRI “could be used as a potential biomarker to assess the individual SUDEP risk in epilepsy patients.”

In one of two populations studied, investigators analyzed MRI scans from 27 SUDEP patients taken prior to death. Focusing on brainstem areas involved in autonomic function, deformation morphometry generated profile maps that isolated areas of volume loss. The changes suggested that focal epilepsy produced structural changes in the mesencephalic region of the lower brainstem.

Damage to nuclei involved in control of heart rate variability and other autonomic functions would be consistent with increased risk of SUDEP.

“We can just report what we see on imaging. These data do not tell us the cause of SUDEP, but they do show correlations that are consistent with current theories,” Dr. Mueller explained.

In a second study that compared 18 patients with focal epilepsy to 11 controls, greater volume loss in patients with epilepsy correlated negatively with heart rate variability, a relationship not seen in the controls. The volume loss in periventricular gray and medulla oblongata nuclei was most closely associated with heart rate variability, which is considered a surrogate for altered autonomic function, Dr. Mueller reported.

Similar conclusions were reached in a different study conducted at a separate institution. In this study, MRI scans from 237 patients with epilepsy and 110 healthy controls were evaluated. Four of the epilepsy patients subsequently died of SUDEP.

Ted Bosworth/Frontline Medical News

Allan George

Overall, although a variety of structural differences were observed between epilepsy patients and healthy controls, SUDEP patients were found to have significantly decreased volumes in the caudate, putamen, and nucleus accumbens, reported Allan George, associate research coordinator at the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center of New York University Langone Medical Center, New York.

“These are all areas that can be involved in autonomic function potentially involved in SUDEP,” Mr. George said. Like Dr. Mueller, Mr. George cautioned that clinically viable algorithms that would allow MRI to assess SUDEP risk may be years away, but these studies provide preliminary evidence that structural changes on MRI could eventually serve as a SUDEP biomarker.

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