The goal of surgery for pediatric seizure disorders is to reduce or eliminate refractory seizures in children to allow for improvement in cognitive and functional development. In some cases, surgery can result in seizure freedom. In other cases, surgery may reduce the frequency and severity of seizures. Since uncontrolled seizures can lead to brain damage or even death, surgery for seizure disorders can be life-saving and in many cases can improve a patient’s quality of life and development.
Surgery for seizure disorder is both safe and effective when it’s performed on carefully selected patients by a pediatric neurosurgeon specializing in seizure disorder surgery in children. Not all neurosurgeons have advanced training and expertise in seizure disorder surgery, so it is important to choose a surgeon who does. (See Doctors Who Treat Pediatric Seizure Disorders.)
There are two basic types of surgery for seizure disorder: curative and palliative.
The goal of curative surgery is to identify the specific area of the brain where seizures are generated and remove that area. A variety of specialized tests are performed prior to surgery to identify both the seizure-generating area of the brain as well as the specific functions of the brain. If the site of seizure onset can be identified and removed safely, without neurological deficit, then surgery can proceed safely with a high probability of a cure.
In some cases, such as when a child has a tumor, only a small area of the brain will be removed. In other cases, the area will be larger, consisting of an entire lobe or multiple lobes of the brain in a procedure called a lobectomy. If seizures involve an entire hemisphere of the brain, or diffuse areas of a hemisphere, surgeons may disconnect the entire hemisphere in a procedure called a hemispherotomy. The goal of curative surgery is to remove or disconnect the entire seizure-producing network of neurons. Though it seems drastic, a child’s brain has great plasticity, and other parts of the brain can take over the functions that are removed over time.
If the area of the brain generating the seizures is important for normal brain function, then surgery cannot be done safely and palliative surgery is considered. In some cases, if the seizure focus is deep and would present significant risk for surgical resection, laser ablation via a minimally invasive burr hole and placement of a laser probe can be performed to eliminate the seizure focus.
The goal of palliative surgery is to reduce the frequency and severity of seizures in cases where curative surgery isn’t possible. Palliative operations often involve “disconnecting” parts of the brain where seizures start or spread. For example, the brain structure called the corpus callosum is a major route of communication between the two hemispheres of the brain — and a pathway along which seizures can spread. A procedure called a corpus callosotomy eliminates that pathway by severing the corpus callosum. The brain has other routes of information flow between the two hemispheres, but in certain types of seizures, the callosum is the primary site of spread. Specific seizure types, most commonly drop attacks, are often significantly decreased by a corpus callosotomy.
Other options for palliative surgeries include vagal nerve stimulation and deep brain stimulation. In these procedures, a neurosurgeon implants a device similar to a pacemaker to deliver electrical impulses to a cranial nerve or the part of the brain where the seizures originate. These electrical impulses decrease the frequency and severity of seizures.
Download our Epilepsy Surgery Brochure
Surgery for epilepsy in children is an advanced procedure that should only be performed by a pediatric neurosurgeon specializing in epilepsy surgery, after evaluation by a multidisciplinary team of epilepsy specialists. Prior to surgery a child should be evaluated by a multidisciplinary team consisting of neurologists, neurosurgeons, neuroradiologists, neuropsychologists, nurse specialists, language therapists, and occupational and physical therapists. These teams are found at major medical centers and include the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian. (See Doctors Who Treat Pediatric Seizure Disorders.)
Our Care Team
- Victor and Tara Menezes Clinical Scholar in Neuroscience
- Associate Professor of Neurological Surgery in Pediatrics
- Associate Professor of Neuropsychology in Neurological Surgery
- Director of Neuropsychology Services
- Vice Chair for Clinical Research
- David and Ursel Barnes Professor in Minimally Invasive Surgery
- Professor of Neurosurgery, Neurology, and Otolaryngology
- Director, Center for Epilepsy and Pituitary Surgery
- Co-Director, Surgical Neuro-oncology
Reviewed by: Caitlin Hoffman, M.D.
Last reviewed/last updated: December 2020