On the cellular and network bases of epileptic seizures

Annu Rev Physiol. 2001:63:815-46. doi: 10.1146/annurev.physiol.63.1.815.


The highly interconnected networks of the mammalian forebrain can generate a wide variety of synchronized activities, including those underlying epileptic seizures, which often appear as a transformation of otherwise normal brain rhythms. The cerebral cortex and hippocampus are particularly prone to the generation of the large, synchronized bursts of activity underlying many forms of seizures owing to strong recurrent excitatory connections, the presence of intrinsically burst-generating neurons, ephaptic interactions among closely spaced neurons, and synaptic plasticity. The simplest form of epileptiform activity in these structures is the interictal spike, a synchronized burst of action potentials generated by recurrent excitation, followed by a period of hyperpolarization, in a localized pool of pyramidal neurons. Seizures can also be generated in response to a loss of balance between excitatory and inhibitory influences and can take the form of either tonic depolarizations or repetitive, rhythmic burst discharges, either as clonic or spike-wave activity, again mediated both by intrinsic membrane properties and synaptic interactions. The interaction of the cerebral cortex and the thalamus, in conjunction with intrathalamic communication, can also generate spike waves similar to those occurring during human absence seizure discharges. Although epileptic syndromes and their causes are diverse, the cellular mechanisms of seizure generation appear to fall into only two categories: rhythmic or tonic "runaway" excitation or the synchronized and rhythmic interplay between excitatory and inhibitory neurons and membrane conductances.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Epilepsy / etiology*
  • Epilepsy / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Neural Pathways / physiopathology
  • Neurons / physiology