Doctor: Commerce Secretary's seizure could be early sign of epilepsy

The nation’s eyes have turned to the story of U.S. Commerce Secretary John Bryson, who has been charged with striking two different cars multiple times with his Lexus, within the time span of a couple of minutes, in Southern California this past Saturday afternoon.

After hitting the first vehicle, Los Angeles law enforcement said Bryson proceeded to get out of his car to speak with the other car’s occupants.  But as he was leaving the scene, Bryson allegedly hit their car yet again and then hit a second vehicle a few minutes later.  Bryson was later found unconscious in his car and was admitted to a hospital where he was treated for "non-life threatening injuries."  According to police, there was no evidence that alcohol or drugs were involved in the incident.

A spokesperson for the Commerce Department revealed in a statement Monday that Bryson had apparently suffered a seizure while driving this weekend.  The official also said that Bryson has since been released and was given medication for the seizure.

While it was not clear whether or not Bryson’s episode caused the accidents, one expert believes that it’s entirely possible that a seizure could be responsible and that Bryson may be showing early signs of epilepsy.

“It’s possible he could have been appearing somewhat normal and still be a little bit confused,” Dr. Cynthia Harden, director of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Care Center at the Cushing Neuroscience Institute in Manhasset, NY, told  “He could have been confused between seizures, and maybe the people he talked to really didn’t pick up on it.  Of course, this is all speculation, but they need to talk to those people and see exactly what they said.  It’s all about focusing on the details.”

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According to Harden, 68-year-old Bryson could be at risk for developing epilepsy – a brain disorder that causes repeated seizures or convulsions over the course of a person’s life.

“There are two peaks of the onset of epilepsy,” Harden said.  “One is in childhood below age ten, then there’s another peak of onset epilepsy at age 65 – which is an even greater prevalence than onset in childhood.”

“Epilepsy is much more common than is generally thought,” Harden added.  “It occurs in almost one percent of the population, meaning one out of every 100 people has epilepsy.  But the big picture is that about half are very well controlled with medication.  So it’s a relatively silent illness.”

If it is established that Bryson did in fact suffer from a seizure, the next step, according to Harden, is to determine what exactly caused it.  She maintained that an episode of this kind could be indicative of an even larger issue.

“When there’s a new diagnosis, the important thing is to get a brain image to rule out any structural cause of the illness – such as a stroke or brain tumor,” Harden said.  “About half the time, that image is normal and we don’t have a known cause.  But there’s a greater chance that there may be a cause of epilepsy in the mature population.  But even with his age group, they may not know the cause of his epilepsy.”

While an underlying explanation for many cases of epilepsy remains unknown, there are several triggers that can bring about epileptic seizures – such as exhaustion or illness with fever.

According to Harden, a diagnosis of epilepsy does not necessarily mean that a person will be restricted from having a normal life. Instead, it simply means that a few adjustments need to be made to that particular person’s lifestyle.

“The main thing is that the person with epilepsy should take their medications regularly,” Harden said.  “They also need do discuss their medications with their doctor so they can get a dose they can tolerate well.  Some common restrictions  include not operating heavy machinery, don’t work with heights. I personally discourage scuba diving and sky diving.”

“But what we aim to do with these patients is make sure they’re seizure-free,” Harden continued.  “Certainly now, [Bryson] should be prohibited from driving for a specific period of time.  But if he continues taking his medication, perhaps they can enable him to drive again and resume a normal life.”

The investigation into Bryson’s accidents is ongoing, and it is not yet known whether or not he has been diagnosed with epilepsy or if he’s had any prior medical conditions.  However, Harden remains positive that if epilepsy is to blame, Bryson’s outlook for the future is optimistic.

The outlook is pretty good in that about 50 to 60 percent of people with epilepsy will do well with no seizures,” Harden said.  “This person is really a high functioning, normal person.  [If he’s diagnosed,] he will hopefully do very well with treatment.”