For children who are genetically predisposed to photosensitive seizures, playing and watching video games could bring them an unexpected trip to the doctor.
BY NORA HORVATH
In the early ’90s, Ronald Jacobson, M.D. noticed an interesting trend after working on Christmas day for several years in a row. “I was always getting calls about a child having a seizure after having gotten a videogame,” recalls Dr. Jacobson, Chief of Pediatric Neurology at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital, a member of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network. He quickly coined a term for the unique trend, “Christmas Day Seizures.”
The phenomenon that Dr. Jacobson observed was a cluster of seizures caused by children with undiagnosed photosensitive epilepsy playing video games for the first time.
Photosensitive epilepsy is a genetic neurological condition that only affects about three percent of people with epilepsy. Symptoms usually begin to show between ages 2 to 15, and can be triggered by any rhythmic, repetitive flashing light. Dr. Jacobson sees patients with photosensitive seizures triggered by strobe lights, sunlight reflecting on snow, and sunlight flashing through trees while driving a car, among countless other causes. Each patient has his or her own triggers, and seriousness of symptoms can range from mild to severe.
“Symptoms of photo-induced seizure can range from a child just having a staring spell, to having rhythmic eye blinking and zoning out, to actually falling down and having a full convulsion,” explains Dr. Jacobson. “If it’s a mild episode, parents should restrict their child from watching video games until they can see a doctor and get a neurologic consult. If they have a full convulsion, they should go to the hospital.”
The link between video games and photosensitive epilepsy came to light during an extreme case in Japan in 1997, when an episode of the popular cartoon Pokémon sent more than 700 people to the hospital with seizure symptoms. After an investigation into the incident, doctors determined that a scene that included repetitive flashing red light acted as a trigger.
“My experience is that we see less video game seizures today because the graphics have gotten better,” says Dr. Jacobson. “In the early days there was a lot of flickering, and what triggers a seizure is repetitiveness of the same flash.” As video game design becomes more sophisticated, graphics designers use less random flashing.
Although the idea of a video game induced seizure might sound scary, Dr. Jacobson stresses that seizures are usually non-life threatening, and that this should not discourage parents from buying their children video games as gifts. If a parent feels as though their child is having an episode, they should seek proper medical attention.
“We don’t want to scare people. Most patients with epilepsy do not have photosensitive epilepsy, so the vast majority of people can play video games without a problem.”