Can Video Games Cause Seizures?

Understanding Photo-Convulsive Seizures

Boy concentrating on a video game
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Parents and educators often have concerns about whether the flashing lights or the graphics that are a part of popular video games and cartoons can cause convulsions, loss of consciousness or 'spells' among young children. This concern is indeed rooted in the fact that adults and children have experienced real medically documented seizures as a result of viewing rapidly blinking lights and fast paced animated graphics.

 These types of episodes are called photo convulsive seizures or photo sensitive seizures.

What Are Photo Convulsive Seizures?

Our brains work through a process in which neurons signal each other through orderly electrical activity. Seizures are physical convulsions or changes of consciousness that are caused by alterations of the normal electrical activity in the brain, characterized by erratic electrical signals between neurons.

There are a number of known triggers that can make a seizure more likely to happen, including alcohol, drugs, fevers, sleep deprivation and others. Flashing lights and colors are among the most unusual environmental exposures that can trigger a seizure.

A photo convulsive seizure is a seizure that is provoked by looking at rapidly flickering lights. Some people can experience this type of seizure once and never again, and some individuals have a condition called photo convulsive epilepsy, which is characterized by seizures that are specifically provoked by visual triggers.

What Do We Know About Photo Convulsive Seizures? 

There have been sporadic reports of seizures induced by video games or concert lights for over 60 years. The more extensive study and deeper understanding of the process by which flashing lights can trigger a seizure came after the most prominent reports of photo convulsive seizures, which occurred in 1997.

On December 16, 1997, at least 700 children and adults in Japan went to hospital for the evaluation of seizures that occurred while watching a Pokémon pocket monster cartoon.

These seizures were labeled as 'pocket monster seizures' at the time of the widespread outbreak. Most of the people who had seizures provoked by watching the cartoon experienced a good recovery. However, the event was so unusual that close medical follow up helped unravel the cause of what had happened.

According to follow up reports, about 20 to 25 percent of the people who experienced seizures provoked by the cartoon had experienced at least one seizure prior to the event or had already been diagnosed with epilepsy prior to the event. Most of those who had seizures triggered by the cartoon’s rapidly animated lights did not experience any more seizures over a 5-year follow up period. And the vast majority of those who continued to experience seizures after the widespread December 16 event were among the group who had already had seizures prior to the ‘pocket monster’ event.

Further examination to determine which type of animation could stimulate seizures revealed that alternating changes of different colored lights such as deep red and deep blue at a rapid rate which was measured at around 12Hz could trigger seizures among some individuals.

This happens because rapidly alternating flashing colored lights may cause erratic electrical activity in the part of the brain that integrates vision, which is the occipital lobe. This irregular and hyperactive electrical activity in the occipital lobe can then spread to other regions of the brain, triggering a convulsive seizure and/or loss of consciousness.

Photo Convulsive Seizures Vs. Photo Convulsive Epilepsy 

Some people who have epilepsy, and even some who do not have epilepsy, can experience a photo convulsive seizure triggered by bright lights or by rapidly flashing lights.

A photo convulsive seizure is a seizure triggered by a visual trigger.

Photo convulsive epilepsy, on the other hand, is when an individual who has epilepsy is particularly prone to having seizures upon exposure to certain types of lights or graphics.

However, while exposure to rapidly alternating flashing lights can provoke a person’s first seizure or can uncover a diagnosis of photo convulsive epilepsy, exposure to flashing lights or rapidly moving graphics cannot cause photo convulsive epilepsy to develop. There is no evidence that flashing lights can cause a person who does not have epilepsy to develop epilepsy or to begin having seizures unrelated to the visual triggers.

What Should I Do if Light Bothers My Eyes? 

For many people, flashing lights, bright lights can cause headaches, dizziness or eye pain. This is often referred to as photosensitivity. Photosensitivity is fairly common and it has not been found to be related to photo convulsive seizures.

What Should I Do About Photo Convulsive Seizures?

Overall, photo convulsive seizures are uncommon, affecting an estimated 1-3% of individuals who have epilepsy, and only rarely affecting individuals who do not have epilepsy. After the unusual ‘pocket monster’ seizure outbreak occurred, the understanding of the lights and graphics deemed responsible has largely prevented the routine use of type of flashing lights that triggered the pocket monster seizures, and there have not been further widespread reported incidents with the Pokémon series or with any other series.

However, there are occasional reports of seizures that appear to be provoked by flashing lights in video games, computers, live entertainment or on screen shows and even flashing emergency vehicle lights. These visual triggers have all been associated with photo convulsive seizures among people who have epilepsy and even among people who do not have epilepsy. Thus, it is advisable for parents and educators to carefully select and monitor their children's computer use and entertainment. In fact, new and exciting tools even allow imaginative children and adults to create their own videos and games, which could potentially incorporate unusual visual effects.

A Word From Verywell

If you or a loved one experience one seizure, it is important to have a prompt medical evaluation. A seizure requires expert medical care, and possibly medication. A seizure can be the sign of epilepsy or another medical condition.

If you have epilepsy, it is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle and to take your medication regularly so that you can avoid having seizures, which can lead to physical injury. Epilepsy is a medical condition that is often feared and misunderstood. However, people living with epilepsy can lead long, healthy and productive lives.

Sources:

Photosensitive seizures provoked while viewing "pocket monsters," a made-for-television animation program in Japan, Ishida S, Yamashita Y, Matsuishi T, Ohshima M, Ohshima H, Kato H, Maeda H, Epilepsia. 1998 Dec;39(12):1340-4

Altered recovery from inhibitory repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) in subjects with photosensitive epilepsy. Bocci T, Caleo M, Restani L, Barloscio D, Rossi S, Sartucci F, Clin Neurophysiol. 2016 Oct;127(10):3353-61

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