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Study: ketogenic diet effective for children with severe epilepsy

10 March, 2003

The Ketogenic Diet, a high-fat, low carbohydrate dietary alternative to anti-epileptic drugs, can dramatically reduce or even end seizures in children with severe epilepsy, according to the first-ever controlled study of the diet.

Fifty children with drug-resistant seizures have been enrolled to date in the research study led by paediatric neurologist Dr Helen Cross of Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) in London. Of the 14 children who have now been on the diet for at least three months, more than half have seen a 50 per cent reduction in seizures. In four cases, the seizures were reduced by 75 per cent.

The parents were asked to complete a questionnaire on how easy they found the diet to tolerate and implement. In all but one case they reported a marked improvement in their child's alertness, awareness and responsiveness.

The findings emerge from the biggest-ever clinical trials of the diet in the UK, and compare two different ways of giving the diet. American studies prefer the classical diet to the medium chain triglyceride (MCT) diet. Experts at GOSH believe it is not known which is better. Half the 120 children to be recruited will therefore be randomised to each diet. With the classical diet most of the fat comes from naturally fatty foods like cream, butter and oil. The MCT diet is where the child receives some fat from naturally occurring foods and some from a MCT supplement.

Helen Cross, Paediatric Neurologist at GOSH, said:

"The early findings of this study and others demonstrate that the diet does actually work, with often dramatic effect, in reducing seizures. The issue is whether there is indeed any difference between the diets. It should be established as a recognised alternative treatment for any child with challenging and resistant epilepsy.

"If this diet was introduced more widely across the UK it could have widespread benefits in the future by reducing the need for medications. But, sadly there are only a handful of dieticians in the UK with the expertise and resources to deliver it."

A spokesman for the charity Epilepsy Action said:

"We are pleased to see that more work is being done on this treatment in the UK. Any proven treatment that offers a reduction in seizures has to be welcomed and we hope that the ketogenic diet will be offered to more families throughout the country, where suitable.

"The ketogenic diet has a long history in the US and has proved helpful to many people whose seizures haven't responded to medication. However, it isn't suited to everyone and must only be used under medical supervision."