What is epilepsy and how does the groundbreaking new laser treatment work?

The pioneering treatment, Laser Interstitial Thermal Therapy (LITT), could help some of the one in 100 people in the UK who have epilepsy. Credit: ITV Granada

Liverpool's Alder Hey Children's Hospital has performed a groundbreaking treatment which could transform the lives of some people with epilepsy.

The first procedure, using the Laser Interstitial Thermal Therapy (LITT), was carried out on a teenager who was able to celebrate his birthday just days later.

Nathan Wood, 16, has not had a seizure since the treatment and now hopes he will be able to enjoy an independent future.

He is one of an estimated 633,000 people living with epilepsy in the UK.

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a brain disorder that causes recurring seizures. 

Seizures can vary from very brief lapses of attention or muscle jerks to severe and long convulsions.

They also vary in frequency, from less than one per year to many per day.

This can really impact a person’s quality of life and can cause physical problems such as fractures and bruising from seizure injuries, problems with memory and cognition, as well as psychological conditions such as anxiety and depression. 

Treatment with medicines can control epilepsy for some people but for others, surgery may be the only option.

What are the symptoms of epilepsy?

According to the NHS, possible symptoms include:

  • uncontrollable jerking and shaking, called a "fit"

  • losing awareness and staring blankly into space

  • becoming stiff

  • strange sensations, such as a "rising" feeling in the tummy, unusual smells or tastes, and a tingling feeling in your arms or legs

  • collapsing

The NHS also has guidance about what to do if someone has a seizure.

How does this new treatment work?

The procedure works by using an MRI-guided laser ablation system, and is called Laser Interstitial Thermal Therapy (LITT) allowing the surgeon to accurately destroy the affected tissue in real time.

Consultant Neurosurgeon at Alder Hey, Mr Jonathan Ellenbogen said, "It is a minimally invasive surgical alternative requiring a very small incision (just 3.3mm) compared to open surgery.

"Other benefits include less scarring and reducing the length of time children and young people have to spend in hospital."

Mr Ellenbogen describes how he performs the procedure.

Although this may be a ground-breaking treatment for many children and young people, the treatment is only appropriate in cases where clinicians can identify the area of the brain affected by epilepsy, and if their epilepsy is not already controlled well with medication.