Epilepsy Sparks

Genetics: Having Epilepsy, Being Tall, and Rolling Your Tongue.

Genetics: Having Epilepsy, Being Tall, and Rolling Your Tongue.

“Sorry but I think you are wrong. Is epilepsy not a result of genetics caused in many cases by close family interbreeding. Such as first cousin marrying first cousin.”

When I first read this, my first emotion was shock and then I laughed at the poor man’s ignorance. But then I felt pain on behalf of those who must interact with people like him every single day.

I’d posted an article from The Lancet Journalon the Epilepsy Sparkssocial media pages regarding the higher rate of epilepsy in developing countries. The Lancet Journal is one of the most highly respected medical journals in the world publishing articles quoting empirical evidence3.

Many of us think that the ignorance like that of John* only occurs in certain countries where fewer people unfortunately yet have access to education. Well no: John was from the United Kingdom.

Oh. Dear. Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash


Common causes of epilepsy are:

  •          Head injury
  •          Low oxygen during birth
  •          Meningitis or Encephalitis
  •          Stroke
  •          Alzheimer's disease
  •          Brain tumours

In developing countries there is far less access to medical care (including assistance in childbirth, disease prevention, and treatments) and often a greater incidence of ciolence and head injury; hence epilepsy is more common.

The Epilepsy Society says:

Some researchers now believe that the chance of developing epilepsy is probably always genetic to some extent4

…which if the case, is exciting because it means that Neuroscientists & Researchers will be able to focus their work into epilepsy more effectively.

Brain. Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

It is worth noting that of course, some illnesses can be attributed (at least to a degree) to people having children with close family members:

One billion people worldwide live in countries where marriage among relatives is common. Of this billion, one in three is married to a second cousin or closer relative or is the progeny of such a marriage. The frequency of genetic disorders among such children is around twice that in children of non-related parents.5

Epilepsy is common

The thing is, that epilepsy is common in the rest of the population (approx. 1%6), so epilepsy isn’t the result of children with a close relative. 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancerat some point in their lives but this isn't the result of having children with a close relative either.

People can be born with genetic predispositions to thousands of traits/illnesses, some of which are attributable to recessive or mutated genes, and some of which are attributable to environmental factors, including (and these are just a few of thousands):

Even if a person has a gene which makes them more likely to have a certain trait or disease/condition, they often won’t experience it because:

·         They need more than one copy of the gene18

·         The gene won’t have been turned on (yes: it’s that complicated: epigenetics19 (the name of which isn't anything to do with epilepsy specifically):

Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene expression (active versus inactive genes) that do not involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence—a change in phenotype without a change in genotype—which in turn affects how cells read the genes.”19

Did you also notice that not all of the traits mentioned are negative/undesirable?! I wouldn’t mind being a bit taller or being able to roll my tongue differently.

DNA. PublicDomainPictures 

Even if everyone with epilepsy had it as the result of genetics it wouldn’t mean that 75million people were the result of "sex between close relatives.". Just as 40% of those with hay fever20 (the percentage of those whose hay fever has a genetic component) also are not the result of sex between close relatives.

Epilepsy can start at any age, to those from any background, to those of any ethnicity, sexuality or genetic complexity for a variety of reasons.

For information regarding epilepsy research, contact Epilepsy Research UK, details here21.

If you have a comment or question, I’m always game to chat on Twitter at Torie Robinson

Torie Robinson

International Public Speaker & Consultant - Epilepsy, Mental Health, Diversity & Inclusion

Epilepsy Sparks CEO - featured at CBSi, BBC, HuffPost, Sky News & More.

Does your company require an inspiring speech or some consultancy on epilepsy, mental health, and diversity & inclusion? Contact: torie@epilepsysparks.com





1.        Lancet Journal: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(12)61381-6/fulltext

2.        Epilepsy Sparks: https://www.epilepsysparks.com/

3.        Live Science: https://www.livescience.com/21456-empirical-evidence-a-definition.html

4.        Epilepsy Society: https://www.epilepsysociety.org.uk/causes-epilepsy#.XT5BAOhKjIV

5.        The BMJ: https://www.bmj.com/content/365/bmj.l1851

6.        Epilepsy Action: https://www.epilepsy.org.uk/info/what-is-epilepsy

7.        Breast Cancer Health UK: https://www.breasthealthuk.com/breast-cancer-genetic-testing/breastgene-service

8.        U.S. National Library of Medicine: Genetics Home Reference: https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/traits/intelligence

9.        Stanford At The Tech: Understanding Genetics: https://genetics.thetech.org/ask-a-geneticist/hair-color-genetics

10.     The Mayo Clinic: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/huntingtons-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-20356117

11.     NHS – Eczema: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/atopic-eczema/causes/

12.     Genetics – tongue-rolling: https://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/basics/observable/

13.     U.S. National Library of Medicine: Genetics Home Reference: https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/oculocutaneous-albinism

14.     U.S. National Library of Medicine: Genetics Home Reference: https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/traits/height

15.     UCL: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2019/jan/genetic-study-provides-novel-insights-evolution-skin-colour

16.     NHS: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/schizophrenia/causes/

17.     KidsHealth from Nemours: https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/genes-genetic-disorders.html