Epilepsy: does sleep disruption interfere with children’s learning? | Children's Charity

Epilepsy: does sleep disruption interfere with children’s learning?

This research was completed on 26 August 2016

Published on 15 February 2013

Around 60,000 children have epilepsy in the UK.1,2 Evidence suggests around one person in every five with epilepsy also has a learning disability.1 Professor Helen Cross, of University College London Institute of Child Health, is investigating whether learning problems in children with epilepsy are linked to disruption of sleep patterns and to epileptic activity within the brain. If they are, better control of children’s epilepsy, particularly during the night, might improve learning.

What is the problem and who does it affect?

“Learning disabilities are common in children with epilepsy,” says Professor Cross. “Children whose epilepsy begins early in life are particularly vulnerable, especially if their seizures cannot be controlled.” Sadly, around 30 per cent of children with epilepsy will continue to have seizures despite trying all available treatments.2

“Children with both epilepsy and learning disabilities can have difficulties at school and with their relationships with their peers,” explains Professor Cross. “The children’s learning level might be much lower than expected for their age.” Children might have general difficulties with reading, writing and maths, for example, or more subtle problems with their concentration and memory.

“Learning disabilities in children with epilepsy are a major concern for parents, but the exact cause of these disabilities remains unclear,” says Professor Cross. “Controversy surrounds how much the underlying cause of a child’s epilepsy, and the seizures themselves, each contribute to learning disabilities.”

“Another factor that has received little attention is disruption of sleep. We know that sleep plays an important role in learning. Evidence suggests it helps memories to be laid down. However, we don’t know how disrupted sleep affects children with epilepsy. This is an important missing link in our knowledge.”

What is the project trying to achieve?

“We aim to boost understanding of why so many children with epilepsy have learning disabilities,” explains Professor Cross. “We are investigating whether poor learning correlates with disruption of normal sleep patterns, and with the abnormal electrical activity that takes place within the brain when children have epilepsy.”

Around 60 children with two different types of epilepsy are taking part in this study, along with 20 healthy children. The researchers are assessing the children’s brain waves over 24 hours – while they are awake and while they are sleeping – using a technique called video EEG telemetry. During this period, they are also assessing the children’s ability to learn and remember new things using fun, memory tests.

“It’s possible that more effective treatment of sleep disruption, and epileptic activity within the brain, might benefit children by improving learning,” explains Professor Cross. “Further studies in this area are planned.”

What are the researchers’ credentials?

Professor Cross is a world expert in childhood epilepsy, with a long and successful track record in studying learning disabilities in children with epilepsy and the role of early treatment in improving children’s lives. The research is taking place in two centres with state-of-the-art facilities: London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children and Young Epilepsy, Lingfield.

Project LeaderProfessor J Helen Cross MB ChB PhD FRCP FRCPCH
Project team
  • Dr Samantha Chan MBChB BSc MRCPCH
  • Dr Torsten Baldeweg MD
  • Dr Ronit Pressler PhD MD MRCPCH
  • Professor Rod Scott MBChB MRCPCH PhD
  • Dr Krishna Das MBBS DCH MD DM FRCPCH
  • Dr Stewart Boyd MB ChB MD
LocationUniversity College London, Institute of Child Health
Other locations
  • Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Trust
  • Young Epilepsy, Lingfield, Surrey
Duration2 years
Grant awarded15 November 2012
Start date1 June 2013
End date26 August 2016
Grant amount£123,892.00
Grant codeGN1942
AcknowledgementsThis project is funded by a generous donation from The Henry Smith Charity

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  1. Epilepsy Society. About epilepsy. Children. Epilepsy in childhood. http://www.epilepsysociety.org.uk/AboutEpilepsy/Epilepsyandyou/Childrena... Website accessed 20 February 2013.
  2. Joint Epilepsy Council of the UK and Ireland. Epilepsy prevalence, incidence and other statistics. December 2011. http://www.jointepilepsycouncil.org.uk/resources/publications.html Website accessed 8 February 2013.
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