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Multisite Study Reveals Distinct Risk Factor Profile for Youth with Psychogenic Nonepileptic Seizures

Deborah Weisbrot, MD

October 23, 2014 – Deborah Weisbrot, MD participated in a multi-site study that identified a distinct risk factor profile for youth with psychogenic nonepileptic seizures (PNES). Findings from the study were published in Epilepsia, the journal of the International League Against Epilepsy.

Psychogenic nonepileptic seizures are symptoms of a conversion disorder, a psychiatric condition in which psychological stress manifests itself as a neurological disorder. People with PNES experience seizures resembling epileptic seizures, but without the characteristic electrical brain activity associated with epilepsy.

Researchers at 6 sites around the country collected data on 55 youth with PNES and 35 sibling controls, examining current and past psychopathology, sensitivity to anxiety, cognitive functioning, coping strategies, experience of adverse events and parenting styles. They found that youth with PNES had significantly more medical, emotional, behavioral and learning problems than their siblings. They were taking more medications and using more intensive medical services. All the participants with PNES had a confirmed diagnosis of conversion disorder, while none of their participating siblings had the disorder.

The study demonstrated that youth with PNES have a distinct profile that can be used for screening and early diagnosis. Of particular note were the psychosomatic and adversity components of the profile. Youth with PNES had significantly increased anxiety sensitivity and somatization scores than their siblings and a significantly higher rate of lifetime adversities, medical illnesses and psychopathology. The authors suggest that screening youth with seizures for a broad range of somatopsychiatric and adversity variables is important for the early diagnosis of pediatric PNES.

The article, entitled A multisite controlled study of risk factors in pediatric psychogenic nonepileptic seizures, was published in the September 19, 2014 edition of Epilepsia. Deborah Weisbrot, MD is an Associate Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Stony Brook University.