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05 April 2017

Maternal obesity and epilepsy - research suggests possible links

New research from Sweden suggests there may be a possible link between maternal obesity and epilepsy.

But Epilepsy Society's medical director, Professor Ley Sander, has said though the results are interesting, they should be treated with caution and should be viewed in a wider context.

Woman checks her weight, standing on the weighing scales.

Research results

The study from the Karolinska Institutet looked at more than 1.4 million live births to examine the body mass index (BMI) of women in their first trimester.

Of those, 7,592 children - or around 0.5 per cent -  had been diagnosed with epilepsy. Researchers found that the risk of epilepsy increased by 11 per cent in children whose mothers had a BMI of 25 to 30. A BMI of between 30 and 35  was associated with a 20 per cent increased risk, while for those women whose BMI was between 35 and 40, the risk increased to 30 per cent.

Women who were bigger than this set weight had an 82 per cent increased risk of having a child with epilepsy.

Ley Sander comments

However Professor Ley Sander said that understanding the causes and risks around epilepsy was complex and multifactorial.

‘Foetal brain development, particularly during the first trimester of pregnancy, is very sensitive, particularly to inflammatory reactions,’ he said. ‘It is certainly possible that in some people maternal obesity could contribute to brain injury and the subsequent risk factor for neurological conditions such as epilepsy,' he said.

‘However, other external factors such as smoking, alcohol and poor nutrition could also be contributory factors that need to be considered. Excess weight can increase the risk of a premature delivery, pre-natal trauma and low oxygen levels, all of which can be additional risk factors for epilepsy. It is never simple.

‘At Epilepsy Society, we are in the early stages of exploring the genetic contribution to epilepsy and to date, every answer throws up more questions. While genetic variables in one person may give rise to epilepsy and seizures, another person with the same variables may not have the condition. We are learning all the time.

‘Maternal obesity should be a consideration in terms of overall health and wellbeing of both the mother and developing baby. And I think this is something we should address at preconception in order to maximise healthy outcomes and minimise the risk.’

More information

Find out more about pregnancy and epilepsy.