A Brief History of Epilepsy and Its Therapy in the Western Hemisphere

Epilepsy Res. 1992 Jul;12(2):65-74. doi: 10.1016/0920-1211(92)90028-r.


The history of epilepsy and its treatment in the western world dates back at least 4 millennia to the ancient civilization of the middle east. Past and present treatments have been empirical, usually reflecting the prevailing views of epilepsy, be they medical, theological or superstitious. Ancient physicians relied on clinical observation to distinguish between epileptic syndromes and infer their cause. Early pathophysiological theories of epilepsy correctly identified the brain as the site of the problem, but emphasized incorrect causes such as an excess of phlegm in the brain. Treatments consisted of prescribed diets or living conditions, occasional surgery such as bloodletting or skull trephination and medicinal herbs. These treatments, often ineffective, had the intellectual advantage of being based on pathophysiological principles, unlike current, more empirical, therapies. The unfortunate but widely held view of epilepsy as being due to occult or evil influences gained adherents even in the medical world during ancient times, and the later acceptance of Christianity allowed theological interpretations of seizures as well. Magical or religious treatments were more frequently prescribed as a result, practices which persist to this day. In the Renaissance an attempt was made to view epilepsy as a manifestation of physical illness rather than a moral or occult affliction, but it was during the Enlightenment that epilepsy was viewed along more modern lines, helped by advances in anatomy and pathology and the development of chemistry, pharmacy and physiology. The idea that focal irritation may cause seizures came about from clinical and experimental work, and was supported by the successful control of seizures by the (sedative) bromides and barbiturates in the late 19th century. The introduction of phenytoin showed that non-sedative drugs could be effective in controlling seizures as well, and the development of in vivo seizure models widened the scope of pharmaceutical agents tested for their efficacy against epilepsy. Increasing knowledge of the cellular mechanisms of epilepsy will, hopefully, allow the development and introduction of drugs with increasing specificity against seizure activity and the development of epilepsy.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Epilepsy / history*
  • Epilepsy / therapy
  • History, 17th Century
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, Ancient
  • History, Medieval
  • Humans