Epilepsy and Light Therapy | Action Medical Research | Children's Charity | Children's Charity

Epilepsy: could light therapy help?

This research was completed on 30 September 2011

Published on 23 October 2009

Of the estimated 450,000 people with epilepsy in the UK, some 58,000 are children.1 Although medication often controls seizures, its side effects can be unpleasant and around one in three sufferers carry on having seizures despite trying all suitable drugs.2 Researchers are running a clinical trial to find out whether light therapy helps people with epilepsy. If it does, it could be a very significant medical breakthrough

What's the problem and who does it affect?

Growing up with epilepsy

An estimated 58,000 children and teenagers under the age of 18 have epilepsy in the UK.1 That’s one in every 242 children.1

Around 70% of sufferers find medication can stop their seizures altogether.2 However, many of the anti-epilepsy drugs have unpleasant side effects, such as drowsiness and a slowing down of thought processes, which can be difficult to tolerate. Children and teenagers can find them particularly troublesome, especially while at school or in higher education.

Sadly, medication does not work for everyone. Around 30% of sufferers carry on having seizures despite trying all suitable medications.2 Other treatment options are limited. Brain surgery, for example, can help a minority of people, though it is typically used only as a last resort.

Uncontrolled seizures can have a devastating impact on children’s lives, disrupting their education, complicating their friendships and hindering their social development. Children with epilepsy frequently underachieve at school, with half achieving less than would be predicted from their IQ.3 Their condition can cause lasting harm that continues into adulthood, damaging their employment prospects. A wider range of treatments are urgently needed.

What is the project trying to achieve?

Clinical trial of light therapy

The researchers are running a clinical trial to find out whether light therapy can benefit people who continue to have seizures despite trying all suitable medications.

One hundred people who suffer a type of seizure called a complex partial seizure are taking part. Two different intensities of light will be studied, with 50 people in each group. The researchers are assessing whether light therapy cuts the number of seizures people experience.

Four strands of evidence suggest light therapy may be beneficial:

  • a pilot study suggests people suffer fewer seizures on bright, sunny days than on dull, overcast days
  • some studies suggest epilepsy is more prevalent in northern than southern Europe
  • sunlight influences melatonin and vitamin D, two naturally occurring substances that both have links with seizure activity
  • light therapy is an established treatment for depression and the biological pathways involved are also implicated in epilepsy.

What are the researchers' credentials?

Project LeaderDr S Baxendale PhD C.Psychol AfBPS
Project team
  • Dr Dominic Heaney MB BCH MA MRCP PhD
LocationDepartment of Clinical & Experimental Epilepsy, Institute of Neurology, National Hospital for Neurology, University College London.
Duration1 year
Grant awarded23 July 2009
Start date1 November 2009
End date30 September 2011
Grant amount£43,725.00
Grant codeAP1202

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The project team is based at the Department of Clinical and Experimental Epilepsy, University College London, which is world renowned in the development of new ways to diagnose and treat epilepsy. The Department has an impressive track record of running clinical trials of new antiepileptic medications, and is a leading centre for the surgical treatment of epilepsy in the UK.

The Department is one of the UK’s largest specialist epilepsy centres, receiving referrals from all over the UK for people whose epilepsy has not responded well to treatment. With such large numbers of patients, recruiting volunteers to take part in the study should be straightforward.

Who stands to benefit from this research and how?

A possible breakthrough

The researchers hope to reveal whether light therapy is an effective treatment for epilepsy – whether it can reduce the number of seizures that people experience. If it can, it would be a very significant medical breakthrough. The researchers believe light therapy would be cheap and widely available, with far fewer side effects than many of the existing antiepileptic drugs.

The researchers envisage that light therapy would be given alongside medication. Future studies may determine whether it may even allow some people to cut down their level of medication, so they can escape some of the drugs’ side effects.

The volunteers who are taking part in the study all suffer a particular type of seizure, called a complex partial seizure, and they all have seizures despite trying all suitable medications. If light therapy proves effective, further trials will establish whether it helps people with other epilepsy syndromes as well.

People with epilepsy are living in hope of better treatments. Finding a way to cut the number of seizures they experience, and spare them from some of the side effects of drugs, could be truly life changing.


  1. Joint Epilepsy Council of the UK and Ireland. Epilepsy prevalence, incidence and other statistics. March 2005.
  2. Kwan P, Brodie MJ. Early identification of refractory epilepsy. N Engl J Med 2000; 342(5):314-9.
  3. Austin J, Dunn D. Academic Achievement. In Behavioral aspects of epilepsy: principles and practice. Eds  Steven C. Schachter, Gregory L. Holmes, Dorothée Kasteleijn-Nolst Trenité. 2007 Demos Publishing, New York.
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