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Epilepsy program offers new hope for patients to be seizure-free

December 01, 2012
Jack J. Lin, MD, Epilepsy Specialist

For epilepsy specialist Jack J. Lin, MD, patient cases don’t come much more rewarding than Thomas Phelan’s. The Irvine boy’s mother had been seeking medical help ever since his staring spells prompted a preschool official to write him off as autistic, destined to live out his life in a group home.

Thomas was 16 when Renee Phelan, fed up with dueling diagnoses and medications that failed to control what had become grand mal seizures, turned to the UCI Health Comprehensive Epilepsy Program and Dr. Lin. "He was the first doctor who really listened to me," Renee said.

Dr. Lin did much more. He put the teenager in UC Irvine’s state-of-the-art epilepsy monitoring unit, where a spectrum of specialized equipment tracked Thomas’ seizures down into the very folds of his brain where electrical storms raged through his neurons.

Epilepsy treatment has come a long way since potassium bromide, Phenobarbital and diets high in fat and low in carbs were used to try to control seizures. Yet even today’s most advanced anticonvulsant drugs cannot help fully one-third of the estimated 2.7 million Americans with epilepsy, Dr. Lin said. Surgery and deep brain stimulation represent the next best hope.

Thomas’ seizures originated from a part of both the parietal and temporal lobes, which process sensory information and memory. A neurosurgeon colleague inserted an array of electrodes spaced one centimeter apart into Thomas’ brain to map the area where the seizures occurred and pinpoint its function.

Some patients’ seizures involve a part of the brain that, if removed, could cause a person to become disabled. For Thomas, Dr. Lin said, "That region of the brain did not have any motor or sensory function, so my colleague was able to remove it without affecting Thomas' ability to move or feel. Now Thomas is completely seizure free. He is so happy."

Now 18, Thomas has just passed the math portion of California’s high school exam and is on target to graduate in June.

Dr. Lin is also pleased. The epilepsy program will have additional specialized beds and the latest, most sophisticated monitoring equipment in UC Irvine’s University Hospital opening in early 2009. This will allow Dr. Lin and his colleagues to see more patients than the 160 or so they have been treating annually. There are also plans to expand the unit with more beds in a year or so.

"Our mission," Dr. Lin said, "is to offer hope to people who have not had the chance of being seizure-free with standard medical treatment. Very few places do that."

Learn more about UC Irvine's Comprehensive Epilepsy Program »