Prevention of sudden unexpected death in epilepsy: A realistic goal?


Address correspondence to Philippe Ryvlin, Unité 301, Hôpital Neurologique, 59 bd Pinel, 69003 Lyon, France. E-mail:


Sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP) represents one of the most severe consequences of drug-resistant epilepsy, for which no evidence-based prevention is available. Development of effective prevention will depend on the following: (1) better understanding of the pathophysiology of SUDEP to define the most appropriate targets of intervention, and (2) identification of risk factors for SUDEP that would allow for the design of feasible clinical trials to test targeted interventions in high-risk populations. The most important known risk factor is the occurrence and frequency of generalized tonic–clonic seizure (GTCS), a seizure type that triggers the majority of witnessed SUDEP. Therefore, one likely way to prevent SUDEP is to minimize the risk of GTCS with optimal medical management and patient education. However, whether one might prevent SUDEP in patients with refractory epilepsy by using more frequent review of antiepileptic treatment and earlier referral for presurgical evaluation, remains to be seen. Another hypothetical strategy to prevent SUDEP is to reduce the risk of GTCS-induced postictal respiratory distress. This might be achieved by using lattice pillow, providing nocturnal supervision, reinforcing interictal serotoninergic tone, and lowering opiate- or adenosine-induced postictal brainstem depression. Promising interventions can be tested first on surrogate markers, such as postictal hypoxia in epilepsy monitoring units (EMUs), before SUDEP trials can be implemented. EMU safety should also be improved to avoid SUDEP occurrence in that setting. Finally, the development of ambulatory SUDEP prevention devices should be encouraged but raises a number of unsolved issues.