Objective: To investigate whether impaired consciousness in partial seizures can usually be attributed to specific deficits in the content of consciousness or to a more general decrease in the overall level of consciousness.
Methods: Prospective testing during partial seizures was performed in patients with epilepsy using the Responsiveness in Epilepsy Scale (n = 83 partial seizures, 30 patients). Results were compared with responsiveness scores in a cohort of patients with severe traumatic brain injury evaluated with the JFK Coma Recovery Scale-Revised (n = 552 test administrations, 184 patients).
Results: Standardized testing during partial seizures reveals a bimodal scoring distribution, such that most patients were either fully impaired or relatively spared in their ability to respond on multiple cognitive tests. Seizures with impaired performance on initial test items remained consistently impaired on subsequent items, while other seizures showed spared performance throughout. In the comparison group, we found that scores of patients with brain injury were more evenly distributed across the full range in severity of impairment.
Conclusions: Partial seizures can often be cleanly separated into those with vs without overall impaired responsiveness. Results from similar testing in a comparison group of patients with brain injury suggest that the bimodal nature of Responsiveness in Epilepsy Scale scores is not a result of scale bias but may be a finding unique to partial seizures. These findings support a model in which seizures either propagate or do not propagate to key structures that regulate overall arousal and thalamocortical function. Future investigations are needed to relate these behavioral findings to the physiology underlying impaired consciousness in partial seizures.