Neural processes viewed through a microscope
Epilepsy is a neurological condition in which people experience recurrent, unprovoked seizures, caused by a brief change in the electrical activity of the brain. 
The goal of the Institute’s epilepsy research team is to improve the overall health of people with epilepsy through better diagnosis and treatment.

Epilepsy research at WEHI

Our researchers are:

  • Exploring the biological mechanisms underlying different types of epilepsy, which will translate into improved treatment options for patients
  • Identifying new genes which cause epilepsy, to inform treatment decisions
  • Investigating the role of different types of genetic mutations that cause epilepsy
  • Developing analytical methods to improve genetic diagnosis
  • Developing new ways of assessing clinical information that could improve the diagnosis of epilepsy 

We are working with a number of other research institutes including The University of Melbourne’s Epilepsy Research Centre and The Florey Institute to advance epilepsy research.

What is epilepsy?

A person’s thoughts and movements are controlled by brain cells that communicate with each other through regular electrical impulses. A seizure occurs when sudden bursts of electrical activity in the brain disrupt this pattern.  

The kind of seizure and the parts of the body affected relate to the part of the brain in which the abnormal electrical activity occurred. 

There are many different types of seizures; they can be subtle, causing momentary lapses of consciousness, or conspicuous, causing sudden loss of body control. 

Seizures are episodic and unpredictable and may occur as frequently as several times a day, or just occasionally in a lifetime.

Why does epilepsy occur?

Epilepsy affects at least six per cent of the population at some time in their lives. 

We know that some types of epilepsy are caused by: 

  • genetic factors 
  • developmental brain abnormalities or malformations 
  • brain injury or insult, such as a stroke
  • infectious diseases, such as meningitis
  • neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease

In some people the cause of seizures is unclear. 

Having a seizure does not necessarily mean that a person has epilepsy. There are a number of conditions that can be associated with events that mimic epilepsy and these need to be carefully excluded as part of the diagnostic process.

How is epilepsy treated?

Generally, epilepsy is successfully treated with anti-seizure medications and avoiding known triggers. The majority of people diagnosed with epilepsy will be able to control their seizures, or reduce seizure frequency, with medication and lifestyle modifications. 

Some people with epilepsy may notice a link between certain situations and seizures. Some common seizure triggers related to lifestyle include: 

  • lack of sleep
  • overexertion or physical fatigue
  • physical or emotional stress
  • fever
  • alcohol or the use of other drugs

Where medication is not effective, other treatment options such as surgery, vagus nerve stimulation, or the ketogenic diet may also be considered.  

Support for people with epilepsy

For people who have difficulty controlling seizures, epilepsy might have a significant impact on their life. Support with work, education, or daily life may be required.

Epilepsy Australia provides information and support for people with epilepsy.


Professor Melanie Bahlo

Photo of Professor Melanie Bahlo
Laboratory Head; Leader, Healthy Development and Ageing Theme
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Institute researchers have contributed to a decades-long global effort that has revealed two new gene mutations that cause a rare type of epilepsy.

Professor Melanie Bahlo writing on glass

Professor Melanie Bahlo has contributed to pinpointing faulty genes responsible for illnesses including epilepsy, ataxia, and mitochondrial disease.