Evolving concepts on the pathophysiology of absence seizures: the cortical focus theory

Arch Neurol. 2005 Mar;62(3):371-6. doi: 10.1001/archneur.62.3.371.


Four main theories on the pathophysiology of generalized absence seizures have been proposed. The "centrencephalic" theory, proposed in 1954, suggested that discharges originate from a deep-seated diffusely projecting subcortical pacemaker in the midline thalamus. This concept was refined in 1991 with the "thalamic clock" theory, implying that the reticular thalamic nucleus contains the pacemaker cells for the thalamic clock, imposing its rhythm to the cortex. According to other investigators, however, the cortex seems to play a leading role. They suggested that spike-wave discharges have a focal onset in the cortex and are generalized through a rapid propagation. In the "corticoreticular" theory, postulated in 1968, spike-wave discharges are linked to the thalamocortical mechanisms that generate spindles. Rhythmic spindle oscillations generated in the thalamus are transformed into spike-wave discharges when the cortex is hyperexcitable. A 2002 study confirmed in epileptic rats that a functionally intact thalamocortical network is required for the generation of spike-wave discharges. The corticothalamic interrelationships were investigated by means of nonlinear association signal analyses of multiple spike-wave discharges. This showed a consistent focus within the perioral region of the somatosensory cortex. From this focus, seizure activity generalizes rapidly over the cortex. During the first cycles of the seizure the cortex drives the thalamus, while thereafter cortex and thalamus drive each other, thus amplifying and maintaining the rhythmic discharge. In this way the "cortical focus" theory for generalized absence epilepsy bridges cortical and thalamic theories.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiopathology*
  • Epilepsy, Absence / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Neural Pathways / physiopathology
  • Thalamus / physiopathology