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Medicine: Aid for Epileptics

2 minute read

For more than 20 centuries a mass of superstitions, half-truths and prejudices have accumulated about epilepsy. Ancients thought that seizures were due to “demons,” which could be released by opening up the skull; a latter-day legend insists that epileptics are “backward.” * Yet some of the world’s ablest men have been victims of the falling sickness: Van Gogh, Julius Caesar, Paganini, Byron, Dostoevski.

An estimated 600,000 people in the U.S. suffer from epilepsy; another 10,000,000 have a predisposition to it; and about 5,000,000 are subject to the related but socially acceptable migraine headache. The great and continuing tragedy is that epileptics, most of them normal and healthy in other respects, live under the shadow of a few cataclysmic moments which may blight their chances for success.

Most epileptics suffer from grand mal, the violent form of the disease in which patients often turn blue in the face, slaver and fall unconscious. Others are victims of petit mal, which most often attacks children, causing them to stare blankly into space, sometimes exhibit convulsive twitches, occasionally fall to the ground.

The Treatment. The main protection against seizures has been phenobarbitol, a sedative, and more recently a non-sedative called dilantin-sodium. Other therapy: luminal, fatty (and unpleasant) diets, the dehydration of “wet brains,” surgery, electric shock. Last week in Chicago the American Psychiatric Society heard of two promising new drugs to combat epilepsy: tridione (pronounced try-dye-own — TIME, Nov. 26) and phenantoin.

Dr. William Gordon Lennox, a top U.S. authority on the disease, reported “marvelous assistance” from tridione in treatment of petit mal. One of his Harvard proteges, Dr. Harry Leo Kozol, told of impressive results with phenantoin: of 104 difficult cases at Boston City Hospital, 60% had their epileptic attacks reduced 90%; the interval between attacks was tripled.

Phenantoin can be administered in larger doses than dilantin-sodium or phenobarbitol; it does not have a disagreeable taste, and can be given to babies; it is made up in pink pill form and is easy to swallow; its stoplight is drowsiness and not ataxia (loss of muscular coordination), as in dilantin-sodium. Dr. Kozol emphasized that phenantoin is not a replacement for accepted treatments: it can be used alone or with other drugs, particularly dilantin-sodium.

* The facts: 67% are average or above average in intelligence; 23% are slightly below average; only 10% are in state institutions.

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