Sudden unexpected death in epilepsy: risk factors and potential pathomechanisms

Nat Rev Neurol. 2009 Sep;5(9):492-504. doi: 10.1038/nrneurol.2009.118. Epub 2009 Aug 11.


Sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP) is the most common cause of death directly related to epilepsy, and most frequently occurs in people with chronic epilepsy. The main risk factors for SUDEP are associated with poorly controlled seizures, suggesting that most cases of SUDEP are seizure-related events. Dysregulation in cardiac and respiratory physiology, dysfunction in systemic and cerebral circulation physiology, and seizure-induced hormonal and metabolic changes might all contribute to SUDEP. Cardiac factors include bradyarrhythmias and asystole, as well as tachyarrhythmias and alterations to cardiac repolarization. Altered electrolytes and blood pH, as well as the release of catecholamines, modulate cardiac excitability and might facilitate arrhythmias. Respiratory symptoms are not uncommon during seizures and comprise central apnea or bradypnea, and, less frequently, obstruction of the airways and neurogenic pulmonary edema. Alterations to autonomic function, such as a reduction in heart rate variability or disturbed baroreflex sensitivity, can impair the body's capacity to cope with challenging situations of elevated stress, such as seizures. Here, we summarize data on the incidence of and risk factors for SUDEP, and consider the pathophysiological aspects of chronic epilepsy that might lead to sudden death. We suggest that SUDEP is caused by the fatal coexistence of several predisposing and triggering factors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Death, Sudden / etiology*
  • Death, Sudden / pathology
  • Epilepsy / complications
  • Epilepsy / mortality*
  • Epilepsy / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Risk Factors
  • Time Factors