Surgery Removing Half of Brain Stops Seizures

child's fingers bent

It’s a jarring image — a young child undergoing a surgery that removes half of his brain.

Yet it’s real. The epilepsy surgery is called a hemispherectomy, and it removes half of the brain to reduce epileptic seizures.

Now a Cleveland Clinic study finds that this surgery has helped many children to not only enjoy freedom from seizures, but to walk, talk and see better, too.

Surgery boosts function in most kids

Ajay Gupta, MD, who treats pediatric epilepsy cases at Cleveland Clinic, led the study.

“We found that 80 percent of children learn to walk after surgery,” says Dr. Gupta. “Seventy-five or 80 percent of children have no vision deficit. Seventy percent of children learn to speak at or close to their age.”

Dramatic findings from the study

From 1997 to 2009, Dr. Gupta and his team of researchers followed 186 children whose average age was 6 years old. All children had half of their brains removed through hemispherectomy.

Before the surgery, about 75 percent had daily seizures despite taking multiple anti-epileptic medications. Only a small fraction of the 3 million Americans with epilepsy are eligible for hemispherectomy — it’s typically used only when anti-seizure medications fail.

After surgery, the results were dramatic:

  • More than half the children were seizure-free
  • Another 15 percent saw their seizures reduced by 90 percent
  • 83 percent walked independently
  • 70 percent had better language skills
  • Nearly 60 percent were in mainstream schools (with some assistance)

Reading a challenge after surgery

“Surgery not only makes them seizure-free,” says Dr. Gupta, “but having seizure-freedom helps them learn more, do more and gain a higher academic, social as well as occupational potential.”

Over the long term, learning to read seems the most difficult and challenging task for the children, says Dr. Gupta. He says post-op efforts may be geared toward reading and learning.

Help in making a tough decision about surgery

These findings may help parents in making a very difficult decision about their children undergoing this surgery.

“Epilepsy surgery is a very important treatment for selected children who don’t respond to medical therapy,” says Dr. Gupta. “What we’ve shown is that even though hemispherectomy sounds very radical, the benefits far outweigh the risks.”

More information

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