Genetics and epilepsy

6th February 2020

Genetics factors affect everybody, these are attributes that are inherited, passed down from one generation to the next. As science and medicine advances, we constantly understand better the role that genetics can play in epilepsy. 

It’s important to note that although some types of epilepsy are inherited and known to run in the family, some can occur due to genetic changes where the individual is the first to have the mutation and therefore there isn’t a family history to speak of. Other forms of epilepsy are acquired and happen for a reason other than genetics. For example, a person could develop epilepsy as the result of a head injury, which is therefore not inherited. 

Inheriting epilepsy – what are the chances? 

The chances of inheriting epilepsy from a family member can vary depending on the relationship with that family member, as well as the type of epilepsy they have. The exact chances are not 100% clear, but it’s believed that if you have an immediate relative (father, mother or sibling) with epilepsy then the risk of developing it before the age of 40 is less than 1 in 20. The risk is increased slightly in cases where the family member has generalised epilepsy as opposed to focal epilepsy. 

Epilepsy-related genes

Breakthroughs in medical science discovered the first epilepsy-related genes back in the late 90’s. Since then, there have been many genes identified that play a role in epilepsy with new genes being added on a regular basis. Some of these genes are known to be unique to epilepsy, but others have also been associated with a number of other issues.

These advances mean that genetic testing is possible and there are a number of tests that can be utilised to test for epilepsy as a result of a genetic cause. This may give some indication about the likelihood of developing epilepsy later in the future. If you are interested in being tested, speak to your healthcare professional about the options available to you. 

Research and clinical trials

At present, there are a number of research projects and clinical trials that are aimed at further understanding how genetics plays a role in some types of epilepsy. These projects and trials are all looking to develop new and improved ways to treat genetic epilepsies and develop more precise medications.