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Inheritance

Why are some families more likely to have epilepsy than others?

Some types of epilepsy and seizures run in families. These include childhood absence epilepsy (CAE), juvenile myoclonic epilepsy (JME), photosensitive seizures, generalised epilepsy with febrile seizures plus (GEFS+) and focal seizures. However, it’s more common for families to have different types of epilepsy in them. So if your child does develop epilepsy, it may well be a different type to other family members.

A small number of children are born with specific changes in specific genes that cause them to develop epilepsy. Although genes are inherited from both parents, these parents don’t themselves have epilepsy. The gene changes are very specific and only affect that child.

Seizure types

CAE, JME and GEFS+ are all epilepsies that affect people within a certain age range. All the seizures in these types of epilepsy are generalised ones.

Some people who have temporal lobe epilepsy inherit this from their parents. Focal (partial) seizures are usual in temporal lobe epilepsy. It is thought that generalised seizures are more likely to be inherited than focal seizures. But recent research suggests that more focal seizures than previously thought can be inherited.

More information about different types of seizures is available from Epilepsy Action.

We all have something called a seizure threshold in our brain. A low seizure threshold seems to run in some families. People with a low seizure threshold are more likely to have seizures than people with a high seizure threshold. You might inherit a low seizure threshold.

Two to 3 in every 100 people with epilepsy have another medical condition that also causes epilepsy. The risk varies depending on what the other medical condition is. Tuberous sclerosis is a rare condition that is inherited. It causes non-cancerous tumours to develop in different parts of the body, including the brain. And it can cause other health conditions, including epilepsy, learning disabilities and autism. Eight or 9 in every 10 children born to a parent with tuberous sclerosis will develop epilepsy.

More information about tuberous sclerosis is available from the Tuberous Sclerosis Association.

Tel: 01332 290 734
Website: tuberous-sclerosis.org

What is the risk of my child inheriting epilepsy?

Each type of epilepsy has a different level of risk for being inherited. If your epilepsy isn’t part of another medical condition, your child’s risk of inheriting it is thought to be less than 15 in every 100. It also depends on how many other family members have epilepsy, the type of epilepsy they have, and the age it started.

Here is some information about the risks of a child developing epilepsy, when other family members have epilepsy.

Person in the family with epilepsy

Mother

Father

Mother and father

Other family members

Risk of child developing epilepsy compared to childen without a family history

Higher

Slightly higher

Higher than if just the mother has epilepsy. But even then it is more likely the child will not develop epilepsy

 

The more people with epilepsy there are in a family the higher is the risk that the child will inherit epilepsy

 

Age at which parent developed epilepsy

Under 20

20 - 35

Over 35

Risk of child developing epilepsy compared to childen without a family history

Higher

Slightly higher

The same

To sum up

Research into epilepsy and inheritance is being carried out all the time. So, in time, we might find out more about how epilepsy is inherited. Here is what we understand so far:

  • The risk that a child will inherit epilepsy depends on the type of epilepsy that is in the family, which family members have epilepsy, and how old they were when they developed it
  • Some types of epilepsy have a higher risk of being inherited than other types
  • Some people don’t inherit epilepsy itself, but they inherit a low seizure threshold
  • Some children are born with changes to specific genes that cause them to develop epilepsy
  • Other than children with tuberous sclerosis, fewer than 15 in every 100 children born to parents with epilepsy will inherit epilepsy

If you would like to see this information with references, visit the Advice and Information references section of our website or contact our Epilepsy Action Helpline freephone 0808 800 5050.

Code: 
F019.03

Epilepsy Action would like to thank Dr Rhys Thomas, Clinical Lecturer in Neurology, Morriston Hospital, Swansea, for his contribution to this information.

Dr Rhys Thomas has no conflict of interest to declare.

This information has been produced under the terms of The Information Standard.

  • Updated August 2015
    To be reviewed August 2018

Comments: read the 13 comments or add yours

Comments

My husband has seizures. I'm pregnant now, is there anyway possible that my daughter will have them as well? He wasn't born with them. They came about in his early 20's

Submitted by Jewel tuggle on

Hi Jewel

Thank you for your question.

Inheritance and epilepsy is difficult to understand. We have explained it the best we can on this webpage.

The general information is, if the father has epilepsy & he developed it after 20 years of age,  the child has only slightly higher risk than other child in the general population of developing epilepsy.

If you still have concerns talk to your husband’s epilepsy doctor or family doctor. You can also contact our helpline team either by email helpline@epilepsy.org.uk or the Epilepsy Helpline freephone 0808 800 5050. 

Regards

Diane Wallace
Epilepsy Action Advice and Information Team

Submitted by Diane, Epilepsy... on

Hi,
I am 30 year old male from India and got my first partial seizure at the age of 17 (Year 2002). I was on tegritol for few years. I was seizure free from 2010 to 2014 without medicine. I got seizure again on November 2014 and again started taking Tegritol (600 mg per day). There was no reason of seizure in MRI, CT and EEG. any though if back-pain can trigger seizures as I have lower back pain whenever I have seizure like feeling.

Submitted by Dipandra on

Hi Dipandra

Thank you for your question.

Some people with epilepsy may have a trigger for their epilepsy. We don’t list it on our information but we have heard for some people pain can be a very rare trigger.

Regards

Diane Wallace
Epilepsy Action Advice and Information Team

Submitted by Diane, Epilepsy... on

I am a 63 year old female epileptic who has generalised clonic tonic seizures (controlled by med), with the first one occuring at the age of 14. I now have a 16 month old grandson who strongly appears to have absence seizures. Another grandson, who is now 11 years old, also seemed to have them when he was younger, as did all 3 of my siblings. Looking back now, it also seems that all four of my children may have also had them. Of all these people, though, the condition seems to be strongest in that youngest grandson. What is the likelihood that he inherited this, and may end up with clonic tonic seizures himself?

Submitted by myra pearson on

Dear Myra
Here is our information on inheritance. As you can see, the more people with epilepsy there are in a family the higher is the risk that the child will inherit epilepsy.

Hopefully your grandson will get a diagnosis and appropriate treatment. And one possibility is that he’ll grow out of his epilepsy in the same way the other grandson has.

If we can be of any more help, please feel free to contact us again, either by email or the Epilepsy Helpline freephone 0808 800 5050.

Cherry
Epilepsy Action Advice and Information team

Submitted by Cherry, Epileps... on

I can't say if it is inheritEd as the gene is in the diary but it's very unlikely you will pass it on. My wife is pregnant and I am hoping that I won't pass it on. I've looked to see if there is an operation to get rid of the problem does it exist?

Thanks

Submitted by Michael henley on

Hi Michael
Thank you for your question.

Inheritance is a worry for most parents but I hope our information has been helpful. As explained on in our information the risk of is generally small and even smaller for fathers.

If epilepsy medicine doesn’t control your epilepsy, there are other treatments including surgery that may help. For some people surgery can stop their seizures, but it won’t stop genes being inherited.

I hope you find our surgery information helpful and informative. If we can be of any more help, please feel free to contact us again, either by email helpline@epilepsy.orguk or the Epilepsy Action Helpline freephone 0808 800 5050. Our helpline is open Monday to Friday, 8.30am until 5.30pm.

Regards
Diane Wallace
Epilepsy Action Advice and Information Team

Submitted by Diane, Epilepsy... on

hi what's the chance of a baby being born with epilepsy if the mum was born with epilepsy and the dad got epilepsy due to a accident?

Submitted by Natalie Robbins on

Hi my daughter had a very sudden onset of severe epilepsy in May 2013(aged 5 years) she had tonic clonic, absences and a tonic seizures. She could have anything from 10 to 50 again ranging between the different types. Within 6 weeks she had been in intensive care twice because her seizures could continue for more than 17 hours just coming in and out of seizures one after another. Sadly she died suddenly in her sleep only 8 weeks after her first ever seizures. On her death certificate it stated sudep ( sudden unexplained death in epilepsy). I was wondering if anyone knew what might have caused this sudden onset with the worst outcome. Although it has been nearly three years since my little girl died I still have no answers and now still curious to what might of happened.

Submitted by Rachel Picknell on

Dear Rachel
I’m so sorry to hear of your daughter’s death. I can’t imagine the pain and anguish you must have gone through at the time and may still be experiencing.

It must be hard not knowing exactly what caused her seizures and why they were so severe. For some people there may be an explanation but for many there isn’t. Epilepsy is a very difficult condition with so many unanswered questions.

If it will help you to talk about your daughter’s epilepsy, you are more than welcome to ring our freephone Epilepsy Helpline on 0808 800 5050. We may not be able to give you all the answers you are looking for, but we may be able to help you. Our helpline is open Monday to Friday, 8.30am until 5.30pm.

If a person with epilepsy dies unexpectedly, and no obvious cause of death can be found, it is called sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP). Regrettably, it’s estimated that SUDEP happens to one in every 1,000 people with epilepsy. There is no way of predicting who will be affected by SUDEP. However, some people with epilepsy have a higher risk of SUDEP than others.

I hope you have found out about the organisation SUDEP Action that supports people who have lost a loved one to epilepsy. You might find it really useful to talk to them, if you haven’t already done so.

Regards
Diane
Epilepsy Action Advice and Information Team

Submitted by Diane, Epilepsy... on

Hello, I am 41 yrs old. My son is diagnosed with autism who is 7.5 years old. Epilepsy runs in my family, for example my sister has epilepsy, my mom's sister has epilepsy and also my grandma's sis also has epilepsy. My qs is that my son has autism spectrum disorder because of epilepsy in my family ? My son wants us to have another baby as he feels lonely. Should I take risk or not? I'm having fear that it may also transfer to new born? Will my 7 year old son has chances of epilepsy :( ? Thanks!

Submitted by Rica on

Hello Rica

I can hear that this is worrying you. 

As we are not specialists in Autism, we are not able to say whether any future children you have may also have autism. You may find it helpful to contact The National Autistic Society who may be able to answer your questions, and provide you with more information about autism. Their helpline is open 10am – 4pm Monday to Thursday and 9am – 3pm on Fridays. Their number is 0808 800 4104. 

Karen

Epilepsy Action Helpline Team

Submitted by todd at Epileps... on