Since the strongest risk factor for sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP) is frequent bilateral tonic-clonic seizures (BTCS), our aim was to determine whether postictal hypoperfusion in brainstem respiratory centers (BRCs) is more common following tonic-clonic seizures.
We studied 21 patients with focal epilepsies who underwent perfusion imaging with arterial spin labeling MRI. Subtraction maps of cerebral blood flow were obtained from the postictal and baseline scans. We identified 6 regions of interest in the brainstem that contain key BRCs. Patients were considered to have postictal BRC hypoperfusion if any of the 6 regions of interest were significantly hypoperfused.
All 6 patients who experienced BTCS during the study had significant clusters of postictal hypoperfusion in BRCs compared to 7 who had focal impaired awareness seizures (7/15). The association between seizure type studied and the presence of BRC hypoperfusion was significant. Duration of epilepsy and frequency of BTCS were not associated with postictal brainstem hypoperfusion despite also being associated with risk for SUDEP.
Postictal hypoperfusion in brainstem respiratory centers occurs more often following BTCS than other seizure types, providing a possible explanation for the increased risk of SUDEP in patients who regularly experience BTCS.