Fireflies in the brain

Thursday was a shockingly awful day. In a horribly cliched manner, it even moved me to cry in the toilets at work (I mean, can you get more Bridget Jones!?). However, a medicinal G&T with a good friend saw me right, and I was wearily descending into Baker Street tube station when I got a text.

“.. just letting you know.. mild partial seizures… hospital… keep you updated…’

Someone incredibly close to me was in hospital awaiting scans to find the cause of the the seizures they had been experiencing throughout the day. I sat in the empty tube carriage as it rattled its way towards West London with a multitude of, if I’m honest slightly melodramatic, thoughts running through my head. On Friday, I got a phone-call, it was probably temporal lobe epilepsy.

The lobes of the brain - temporal lobe coloured green

Temporal lobe epilepsy affects (as its name suggests!) the temporal lobe of the brain. It can be divided into two categories according to the specific area affected; either the area of the brain on the inner part of the temporal lobe (nearest the centre of brain, involving structures such as the hippocampus and amygdala) or the outer surface of the temporal lobe.

I know very little about epilepsy, so the stereotyped images that immediately spring to mind are that of whole body seizures which result in convulsing and writhing of the floor. But for some forms of epilepsy, the seizures that happen are not remotely like this.

In temporal lobe epilepsy, simple partial seizures do not alter consciousness or affect the whole body. Instead they result in sensations; feelings of déjà vu or focussing on a single memory, or a set of memories (I’m guessing that this is due to the involvement of the hippocampus and associated pathways – but feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). These seizures can also affect the senses. For example; generating auditory sensations or a taste in the mouth that is present.

Complex partial seizures on the other hand impair consciousness, resulting in people staring in space or having an altered ability to respond to others around them. They usually start in a small area of the temporal lobe as a simple partial seizure, and then spread over a larger area of the temporal lobe, resulting in the altered consciousness.

This is a very simplistic overview of these two types of seizures. However, it is these two types of seizures which occurred to one of my nearest and dearest on Thursday afternoon. When I spoke to him on Friday he tried to describe the sensation to me. He described how his brain started to fill with a multitude of thoughts, humming in his head. He couldn’t concentrate on anything around him, and yet he couldn’t focus on any individual thought, any specific memory. I imagine this like to be like having fireflies in the brain – as soon as you locate one, it’s light is gone. At some point he said it felt like his brain became exhausted, and he slipped into unconsciousness.

I don’t know too much about temporal lobe epilepsy, but I’d like to know a little more. If anyone has any good info or has personal experiences of it, please comment, I’d love to hear from you.


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