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Refractory status epilepticus (RSE)—that is, seizures resistant to at least two antiepileptic drugs (AEDs)—is generally managed with barbiturates, propofol, or midazolam, despite a low level of evidence (Rossetti, 2007). When this approach fails, the need for alternative pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic strategies emerges. These have been investigated even less systematically than the aforementioned compounds, and are often used, sometimes in succession, in cases of extreme refractoriness (Robakis & Hirsch, 2006). Several possibilities are reviewed here. In view of the marked heterogeneity of reported information, etiologies, ages, and comedications, it is extremely difficult to evaluate a given method, not to say to compare different strategies among them.

Pharmacologic Approaches

  1. Top of page
  2. Pharmacologic Approaches
  3. Nonpharmacologic Approaches
  4. Conclusion
  5. Acknowledgment
  6. References

Isoflurane and desflurane may complete the armamentarium of anesthetics,’ and should be employed in a “close” environment, in order to prevent intoxication of treating personnel. γ-Aminobutyric acid (GABA)A receptor potentiation represents the putative mechanism of action. In an earlier report, isoflurane was used for up to 55 h in nine patients, controlling seizures in all; mortality was, however, 67% (Kofke et al., 1989). More recently, the use of these inhalational anesthetics was described in seven subjects with RSE, for up to 26 days, with an end-tidal concentration of 1.2–5%. All patients required vasopressors, and paralytic ileus occurred in three; outcome was fatal in three patients (43%) (Mirsattari et al., 2004).

Ketamine, known as an emergency anesthetic because of its favorable hemodynamic profile, is an N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) antagonist; the interest for its use in RSE derives from animal works showing loss of GABAA efficacy and maintained NMDA sensitivity in prolonged status epilepticus (Mazarati & Wasterlain, 1999). However, to avoid possible neurotoxicity, it appears safer to combine ketamine with GABAergic compounds (Jevtovic-Todorovic et al., 2001; Ubogu et al., 2003), also because of a likely synergistic effect (Martin & Kapur, 2008). There are few reported cases in humans, describing progressive dosages up to 7.5 mg/kg/h for several days (Sheth & Gidal, 1998; Quigg et al., 2002; Pruss & Holtkamp, 2008), with moderate outcomes.

Paraldehyde acts through a yet-unidentified mechanism, and appears to be relatively safe in terms of cardiovascular tolerability (Ramsay, 1989; Thulasimani & Ramaswamy, 2002), but because of the risk of crystal formation and its reactivity with plastic, it should be used only as fresh prepared solution in glass devices (Beyenburg et al., 2000). There are virtually no recent reports regarding its use in adults RSE, whereas rectal paraldehyde in children with status epilepticus resistant to benzodiazepines seems less efficacious than intravenous phenytoin (Chin et al., 2008).

Etomidate is another anesthetic agent for which the exact mechanism of action is also unknown, which is also relatively favorable regarding cardiovascular side effects, and may be used for rapid sedation. Its use in RSE was reported in eight subjects (Yeoman et al., 1989). After a bolus of 0.3 mg/kg, a drip of up to 7.2 mg/kg/h for up to 12 days was administered, with hypotension occurring in five patients; two patients died. A reversible inhibition of cortisol synthesis represents an important concern, limiting its widespread use and implying a careful hormonal substitution during treatment (Beyenburg et al., 2000).

Several nonsedating approaches have been reported. The use of lidocaine in RSE, a class Ib antiarrhythmic agent modulating sodium channels, was reviewed in 1997 (Walker & Slovis, 1997). Initial boluses up to 5 mg/kg and perfusions of up to 6 mg/kg/h have been mentioned; somewhat surprisingly, at times lidocaine seemed to be successful in controlling seizures in patients who were refractory to phenytoin. The aforementioned dosages should not be overshot, in order to keep lidocaine levels under 5 mg/L and avoid seizure induction (Hamano et al., 2006). A recent pediatric retrospective survey on 57 RSE episodes (37 patients) described a response in 36%, and no major adverse events; mortality was not given (Hamano et al., 2006).

Verapamil, a calcium-channel blocker, also inhibits P-glycoprotein, a multidrug transporter that may diminish AED availability in the brain (Potschka et al., 2002). Few case reports on its use in humans are available; this medication nevertheless appears relatively safe (under cardiac monitoring) up to dosages of 360 mg/day (Iannetti et al., 2005).

Magnesium, a widely used agent for seizures elicited by eclampsia, has also been anecdotally reported in RSE (Fisher et al., 1988; Robakis & Hirsch, 2006), but with scarce results even at serum levels of 14 mm. The rationale may be found in the physiologic blockage of NMDA channels by magnesium ions (Hope & Blumenfeld, 2005).

Ketogenic diet has been prescribed for decades, mostly in children, to control refractory seizures. Its use in RSE as “ultima ratio” has been occasionally described: three of six children (Francois et al., 2003) and one adult (Bodenant et al., 2008) were responders. This approach displays its effect subacutely over several days to a few weeks.

Because “malignant RSE” seems at times to be the consequence of immunologic processes (Holtkamp et al., 2005), a course of immunomodulatory treatment is often advocated in this setting, even in the absence of definite autoimmune etiologies (Robakis & Hirsch, 2006); steroids, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), plasma exchanges, or intravenous immunoglobulins may be used alone or in sequential combination.

Nonpharmacologic Approaches

  1. Top of page
  2. Pharmacologic Approaches
  3. Nonpharmacologic Approaches
  4. Conclusion
  5. Acknowledgment
  6. References

These strategies are described somewhat less frequently than pharmacologic approaches. Acute implantation of vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) has been reported in RSE (Winston et al., 2001; Patwardhan et al., 2005; De Herdt et al., 2009). Stimulation was usually initiated in the operation room, and intensity progressively adapted over a few days up to 1.25 mA (with various regimens regarding the other parameters), allowing a subacute seizure control; one transitory episode of bradycardia/asystole has been described (De Herdt et al., 2009). Of course, pending identification of a definite seizure focus, resective surgery may also be considered in selected cases (Lhatoo & Alexopoulos, 2007).

Low-frequency (0.5 Hz) transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) at 90% of the resting motor threshold has been reported to be successful for about 2 months in a patient with epilepsia partialis continua, but with a weaning effect afterward, implying the need for a repetitive use (Misawa et al., 2005). More recently, TMS was applied in a combination of a short “priming” high frequency (up to 100 Hz) and longer runs of low-frequency stimulations (1 Hz) at 90–100% of the motor threshold in seven other patients with simple-partial status, with mixed results (Rotenberg et al., 2009).

Paradoxically at first glance, electroconvulsive treatment may be found in cases of extremely resistant RSE. A recent case report illustrates its use in an adult patient with convulsive status, with three sessions (three convulsions each) carried out over 3 days, resulting in a moderate recovery; the mechanism is believed to be related to modification of the synaptic release of neurotransmitters (Cline & Roos, 2007).

Therapeutic hypothermia, which is increasingly used in postanoxic patients (Oddo et al., 2008), has been the object of a recent case series in RSE (Corry et al., 2008). Reduction of energy demand, excitatory neurotransmission, and neuroprotective effects may account for the putative mechanism of action. Four adult patients in RSE were cooled to 31°–34°C with an endovascular system for up to 90 h, and then passively rewarmed over 2–50 h. Seizures were controlled in two patients, one of whom died; also one of the other two patients in whom seizures continued subsequently deceased. Possible side effects are related to acid–base and electrolyte disturbances, and coagulation dysfunction including thrombosis, infectious risks, cardiac arrhythmia, and paralytic ileus (Corry et al., 2008; Cereda et al., 2009).

Finally, anecdotic evidence suggests that cerebrospinal fluid (CSF)–air exchange may induce some transitory benefit in RSE (Kohrmann et al., 2006); although this approach was already in use in the middle of the twentieth century, the mechanism is unknown.

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Pharmacologic Approaches
  3. Nonpharmacologic Approaches
  4. Conclusion
  5. Acknowledgment
  6. References

A wide spectrum of pharmacologic (sedating and nonsedating) and nonpharmacologic (surgical, or involving electrical stimulation) regimens might be applied to attempt RSE control. Their use should be considered only after refractoriness to AED or anesthetics displaying a higher level of evidence. Although it seems unlikely that these uncommon and scarcely studied strategies will influence the RSE outcome in a decisive way, some may be interesting in particular settings. However, because the main prognostic determinant in status epilepticus appears to be related to the underlying etiology rather than to the treatment approach (Rossetti et al., 2005, 2008), the safety issue should always represent a paramount concern for the prescribing physician.

Acknowledgment

  1. Top of page
  2. Pharmacologic Approaches
  3. Nonpharmacologic Approaches
  4. Conclusion
  5. Acknowledgment
  6. References

The author confirms that he has read the Journal’s position on issues involved in ethical publication and affirms that this paper is consistent with those guidelines.

Disclosure: The author does not have any conflict of interest.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Pharmacologic Approaches
  3. Nonpharmacologic Approaches
  4. Conclusion
  5. Acknowledgment
  6. References