Impact of climate change on epilepsy and other neurological conditions
Are our hot summers posing a threat to people with seizures?
Sara Leddy is committed to tackling global warming. She can drive but doesn’t own a car - she takes the bus and cycles instead. Now she is beginning a three-year project at the Epilepsy Society to understand how climate change affects people with epilepsy and other neurological conditions.
Sara Leddy has been concerned about climate change for at least 10 years but admits that, at times, the enormity of its impact on the planet could seem overwhelming. It was only during the Covid-19 pandemic that it dawned on her how individual actions – far from being too small to be significant - could be very powerful in bringing about collective change.
“During the pandemic, it was hard to watch the news as a doctor and to see healthcare staff and people in other countries such as Italy and India struggling with Covid-19 at the time,” she explains. “It often felt overwhelming. As a doctor who is concerned about climate change, I have similar feelings when I hear about the devastating fires in Greece, Canada, as well as the flooding in Libya recently.
“However, I gradually saw how each of us could play our part in overcoming the virus – by wearing masks, staying at home and, in my case, working as a doctor. Of course, we needed the vaccine, but our individual actions collectively also helped.
“That was when I realised the same approach could tackle climate change. If we change as individuals, we can make a collective difference.”
Impact of climate change
Sara Leddy is our new National Brain Appeal and Epilepsy Society Climate Neurology Fellow. Her role is to characterise the impact of climate change on people with epilepsy and other neurological diseases.
“I hope to be able to highlight the impact that climate change is having on people with neurological conditions and ultimately advocate better for them,” she says.
Sara hopes that where the evidence leads, mitigation will follow. “If we can prove, for example, that climate change is increasing seizure frequency or severity, or affecting cognition in people with MS, then I hope we will be able to help people to reduce the impact this has for people.
“This could be through guidance for managing symptoms in a heatwave but also through climate training. If we know there is a heatwave coming, we might be able to help people to prepare slowly for a rise in the temperature, acclimatising so that the increased heat does not come as such a shock.”
Sara is working alongside Professor Sanjay Sisodiya, Director of Genomics at the Epilepsy Society and founder of Epilepsy Climate Change – EpiCC - a group of professionals who are concerned about the impact of global warming on epilepsy.
Sara was a neurology registrar and green ambassador at University Hospital Sussex in Brighton when she first heard Sanjay talking about climate change during an online conference at UCL.
“I asked Sanjay if I could share the recording of his talk with colleagues and he offered to give the presentation to our department. Now I am lucky to be working with him and hopefully contributing to our understanding of the effect of climate change on our health.”
Sara’s project is a three-year fellowship. Her initial research will involve understanding the concerns about climate change experienced by people with neurological conditions, including types of epilepsy where difficulty with thermo-regulation is a characteristic.
She will also be collaborating with researchers in the Philippines, India and several countries in Europe and Australia to develop guidelines from the International League Against Epilepsy about the management of epilepsy in a heatwave.
In the future, she is hoping to be able to carry out a controlled study, looking at the impact of increased temperatures on people with stable neurological disease. This would enable her to assess the impact of temperatures we have recently experienced in heatwaves, in a safe environment. She will monitor the impact of increased temperatures on cognition and other disease specific symptoms in people with neurological diseases and in a control group.
She will also be working with Professor Sisodiya to investigate the impact of fluctuating temperatures on several groups of people. Among the first will be people with complex epilepsy - Sara will monitor how temperature changes inside residential care homes at the Epilepsy Society’s Chalfont Centre might impact seizure frequency and severity.
She will also be exploring the effects of increased temperatures on a range of commonly used medicines in epilepsy and other neurological diseases.
Sara is visibly relieved to talk about climate change. “It’s not something I’ve always spoken openly about,” she says, “but I think the more we talk about it, the more people feel that they can engage and look at ways that they can also get involved.
“I hope our project here at the Epilepsy Society will make a difference.”
Find out more
If you are interested in getting involved in these studies or want to learn more, please contact Sara at email@example.com