The Epileptic Heart: Concept and clinical evidence

Epilepsy Behav. 2020 Apr:105:106946. doi: 10.1016/j.yebeh.2020.106946. Epub 2020 Feb 25.


Sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP) is generally considered to result from a seizure, typically convulsive and usually but not always occurring during sleep, followed by a sequence of events in the postictal period starting with respiratory distress and progressing to eventual cardiac asystole and death. Yet, recent community-based studies indicate a 3-fold greater incidence of sudden cardiac death in patients with chronic epilepsy than in the general population, and that in 66% of cases, the cardiac arrest occurred during routine daily activity and without a temporal relationship with a typical seizure. To distinguish a primarily cardiac cause of death in patients with epilepsy from the above description of SUDEP, we propose the concept of the "Epileptic Heart" as "a heart and coronary vasculature damaged by chronic epilepsy as a result of repeated surges in catecholamines and hypoxemia leading to electrical and mechanical dysfunction." This review starts with an overview of the pathophysiological and other lines of evidence supporting the biological plausibility of the Epileptic Heart, followed by a description of tools that have been used to generate new electrocardiogram (EKG)-derived data in patients with epilepsy that strongly support the Epileptic Heart concept and its propensity to cause sudden cardiac death in patients with epilepsy independent of an immediately preceding seizure.

Keywords: Antiepileptic drugs; Autonomic nervous system; Sudden cardiac death; T-wave alternans; Vagus nerve stimulation; “Epileptic Heart”.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Death, Sudden / epidemiology
  • Death, Sudden / prevention & control
  • Electrocardiography / methods
  • Epilepsy / epidemiology*
  • Epilepsy / physiopathology*
  • Heart Arrest / epidemiology*
  • Heart Arrest / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Seizures / epidemiology
  • Seizures / physiopathology
  • Sleep / physiology*
  • Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy / epidemiology*
  • Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy / prevention & control