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A Disease of Biblical Proportions

Old Testament may offer clues to origins of epilepsy

FRIDAY, Nov. 30, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The Old Testament may offer new insights into epilepsy and how it affected one of the major prophets of the Bible, says a California researcher.

Dr. Eric Altschuler, a neuroscientist at the University of California at San Diego, says passages in the Bible suggest that the author of the book of Ezekiel had temporal lobe epilepsy 2,600 years ago.

Altschuler started studying the book of Ezekiel after a friend mentioned how difficult it was to understand and wondered whether there was a medical explanation for the bizarre nature of the writings.

More than 2 million Americans have epilepsy, reports the Epilepsy Foundation. Dr. Gregory L. Barkely, chair-elect of the Epilepsy Foundation Professional Advisory Board, says the disease can be broadly divided into two groups. One involves generalized seizures, like those often seen in children and which generally involve the whole body. Children who have these types of seizures usually are otherwise normal and often outgrow the problem, he says.

The other group involves complex partial seizures that begin in an abnormal part of the brain, most often in one of the brain's temporal lobes, which is why they also are known as temporal lobe epilepsy, Barkely says.

People who have complex partial seizures often seem to be conscious, but they actually are in a dream or trancelike state. Although an individual may move and speak during this type of seizure, the person has no control over his movements and probably will not make sense.

Altschuler says some temporal lobe epilepsy patients also show signs of extreme religious behavior, decreased sexuality and compulsive writing. The symptoms can occur even when the patient isn't having a seizure. And Altschuler says Ezekiel exhibited them all.

Altschuler says the book of Ezekiel is the fourth-longest in the Old Testament. And the text is often repetitive, showing a tendency toward compulsive writing. While Ezekiel never mentions his own sexuality, Altschuler says he spends chapters slamming harlots.

Most importantly, Ezekiel was not simply pious, he exhibited extreme religious behavior and was concerned with every aspect of religion, right down to specifying the proper dimensions for construction of a temple, Altschuler says.

Ezekiel also showed other neurological signs of epilepsy, such as fainting spells and periods where he couldn't speak. Altschuler says that migraines could have contributed to some, but not all, of these symptoms.

Knowing that Ezekiel had temporal lobe epilepsy is useful because it shows the disease is genetic and not caused by modern environmental factors, says Altschuler, who presented his theory at the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting in San Diego earlier this month.

Barkely says while it's "plausible to speculate" that Ezekiel had temporal lobe epilepsy, only very few people with the disease exhibit symptoms like hyper-religious behavior. And, he says he's seen that type of behavior in people without epilepsy as well.

What To Do

For more information on temporal lobe epilepsy, read this article from the Epilepsy Foundation or this one from Rutgers University.

To learn more about the function of the temporal lobes, go to the Traumatic Brain Injury Resource Guide.

And Ezekiel isn't the only historic figure who may have had the disease. Epilepsy Toronto says St. Paul, Joan of Arc and Lewis Carroll showed signs of it too.

SOURCES: Interviews with Eric Altschuler, M.D., neuroscientist, University of California, San Diego; Gregory L. Barkely, M.D., chair-elect, Epilepsy Foundation Professional Advisory Board; abstract, Nov. 11, 2001, presentation, annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, San Diego
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