Sudden epilepsy deaths and the forensic pathologist

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Sudden unexpected deaths in epileptic persons are not rare events, most commonly encountered by the forensic pathologist rather than the clinician. Such deaths may represent 1–1.5% of all “natural” deaths certified by the medical examiner or coroner. The typical victim is a black male about 30 years of age who tends to abuse alcohol, with a history of generalized epilepsy for more than 1 year and likely for more than 10 years. There are a lack of obvious anatomic causes for the death at autopsy, but 60–70% of cases will have a lesion in the brain (most commonly old trauma) to explain the epilepsy. Most victims have no blood levels of anticonvulsant medications at the time of death. We have evolved a form for use by medical examiner/coroner's investigators at the scene to collect relevant information which will be of assistance to the pathologist in interpreting the case. Estimated prevalence of sudden epilepsy death, mechanisms, and other features of such cases are reviewed briefly.

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