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Structural imaging biomarkers of sudden unexpected death in epilepsy


Sudden unexpected death in epilepsy is a major cause of premature death in people with epilepsy. We aimed to assess whether structural changes potentially attributable to sudden death pathogenesis were present on magnetic resonance imaging in people who subsequently died of sudden unexpected death in epilepsy. In a retrospective, voxel-based analysis of T1 volume scans, we compared grey matter volumes in 12 cases of sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (two definite, 10 probable; eight males), acquired 2 years [median, interquartile range (IQR) 2.8] before death [median (IQR) age at scanning 33.5 (22) years], with 34 people at high risk [age 30.5 (12); 19 males], 19 at low risk [age 30 (7.5); 12 males] of sudden death, and 15 healthy controls [age 37 (16); seven males]. At-risk subjects were defined based on risk factors of sudden unexpected death in epilepsy identified in a recent combined risk factor analysis. We identified increased grey matter volume in the right anterior hippocampus/amygdala and parahippocampus in sudden death cases and people at high risk, when compared to those at low risk and controls. Compared to controls, posterior thalamic grey matter volume, an area mediating oxygen regulation, was reduced in cases of sudden unexpected death in epilepsy and subjects at high risk. The extent of reduction correlated with disease duration in all subjects with epilepsy. Increased amygdalo-hippocampal grey matter volume with right-sided changes is consistent with histo-pathological findings reported in sudden infant death syndrome. We speculate that the right-sided predominance reflects asymmetric central influences on autonomic outflow, contributing to cardiac arrhythmia. Pulvinar damage may impair hypoxia regulation. The imaging findings in sudden unexpected death in epilepsy and people at high risk may be useful as a biomarker for risk-stratification in future studies.

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