Patient Stories

Treating Epilepsy With Targeted Surgery

Originally published April 1, 2019

Last updated May 28, 2024

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Khashayar Pirouzmand

Patients at the USC Comprehensive Epilepsy Center receive the highest level of care, backed by innovative research.

On an ordinary February day, 18-year-old Khashayar Pirouzmand was breezing through the physics questions on an important exam at his high school in Iran. He was excited because doing well could help him get into a top university.

Two hours in, without warning, his life changed dramatically. He suddenly felt a strange pressure in his brain.

Pirouzmand raised his hand and tried to say he wanted to go outside, but couldn’t put the words together. He took a deep breath and glanced at his paper, but could no longer solve the problems he had done only minutes before. 

Pirouzmand left the classroom with the test unfinished. By the time he reached home a half hour later, he could speak again. He told his family something had happened to him, but he didn’t think it was serious. He chalked up the incident to the stressful exam. 

It happened again about two months later. He was talking to his aunt when he heard a high tone in his ear, felt pain in his jaw and passed out. He woke up in an ambulance.

After tests at a local hospital, doctors gave Pirouzmand the news: He had epilepsy, most likely caused by a small tumor on the left side of his brain.

Seizures are a common symptom of epilepsy

50 million people worldwide are diagnosed with epilepsy. It is one of the most common neurological disorders and it is characterized by unpredictable electrical activity in the brain and recurrent seizures. 

Doctors believed Pirouzmand’s tumor was too close to the language areas of his brain to operate, so he began taking two anti-seizure medications. They didn’t stop his seizures, which started escalating.

Each time, he lost the ability to put words together or make sense of them. He tried finishing his university entrance exam, but couldn’t. 

The next year, his seizures again kept him from completing the exam. Pirouzmand’s dream of traveling to America to study engineering seemed nearly impossible. 

Keck Medicine of USC treats the most complex epilepsy cases

Little did he know that in a few years, Pirouzmand would find himself at the USC Comprehensive Epilepsy Center, designated a level 4 center by the National Association of Epilepsy Centers. The highest accreditation possible, this distinction indicates the center’s capability to treat the most complex cases. 

When he finally arrived in Los Angeles two years ago, he saw a community physician for his epilepsy prescriptions who recommended he go to Keck Medicine of USC for help.

A multidisciplinary medical team within the USC Comprehensive Epilepsy Center provides the most advanced care for patients with complex issues. They treat epileptic patients who experience uncontrolled seizures, have severe side effects from medication or who want to get pregnant. 

The team includes board-certified epileptologists, neurosurgeons, neuroradiologists and psychologists, along with epilepsy nurses, occupational therapists and nutritionists. 

Surgery gave Khashayar Pirouzmand his life back (Photos by Kremer Johnson Photography)

“Patients come to us because they need a higher level of care,” notes Christi Heck, MD, medical director of the center and professor of clinical neurology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

That level of specialty is necessary because epilepsy can be extremely challenging to diagnose and treat, in part because it has a wide range of potential causes including genetics, prenatal injury, meningitis, strokes, tumors and traumatic brain injury

More people die of epilepsy (50,000) each year than from breast cancer (40,000). This includes people who develop SUDEP or “sudden unexpected death in epilepsy,” as well as those who die from seizure-related drownings or burns.

Specific cases cannot be treated with medication

Pirouzmand initially met with George Nune, MD, assistant professor of clinical neurology at the Keck School. Dr. Nune changed Pirouzmand’s medications to see if they would halt the seizures. 

“Approximately one-third of patients have medically refractory epilepsy, which can’t be controlled with medication,” Dr. Nune says.

Dr. Nune asked Pirouzmand if he was interested in surgery, which held the potential to remove the source of his epileptic seizures.

“I was very excited,” Pirouzmand says. “It seemed like an adventure for me. I wanted to try it.” 

Advanced imaging to map the patient’s brain

The first step: capturing the electrical impulses in Pirouzmand’s brain. The center is equipped with the most advanced imaging and diagnostic technologies. They include video electroencephalographic monitoring (EEG), an invaluable tool to diagnose epilepsy symptoms, using non-invasive electrodes attached to the head. 

Pirouzmand spent a week in Keck Hospital of USC. His medical team gradually withdrew him from all medication to trigger and track his seizures. This would enable them to characterize what type of seizures he was having and where they originated within the brain. 

Engineering and neuroscience and medical school were all combining to cure me of epilepsy. It’s kind of amazing.

Khashayar Pirouzmand, patient, USC Comprehensive Epilepsy Center

Jonathan Russin, MD, assistant professor of clinical neurological surgery at the Keck School, likens the on-the-scalp video EEG to “trying to listen to a conversation through a wall.” 

Dr. Nune and Dr. Russin escalated the testing to the next level: phase II intracranial EEG monitoring to more accurately locate the area where seizures began and those areas which are essential for speech production.

This higher-level brain mapping is like “being inside the room listening to the conversation,” Dr. Russin says. 

Dr. Russin implanted a very thin mesh of electrodes over the surface of the brain in the relevant region. Pirouzmand’s typical seizures were then recorded over the course of several days as he dutifully did physics homework and watched documentaries in the intensive care unit (ICU).

Dr. Nune then electrically stimulated the various brain areas under this mesh to determine which disrupted the ability to speak in his native Farsi. These would have to be preserved during surgery. 

Pinpointing the area responsible for language as accurately as possible for each individual is essential “because once patients have been having seizures for so long, their brain often has reorganized itself,” Dr. Russin notes. 

Imaging pinpoints the problem and informs surgery

Armed with the results, Dr. Russin could proceed. His goal was to remove as much of Pirouzmand’s tumor as possible while avoiding delicate tissue.

“You’re talking about potentially curing somebody of their seizures and changing the trajectory of their life,” Dr. Russin says. “If our patients have the courage to undergo these procedures, it’s our responsibility to do the job right with the least amount of risk.” 

Pirouzmand was more than ready. “I said, ‘Let’s go.’ This was my chance to get better.”

For Pirouzmand, surgery gave him his life back. He occasionally hears a high tone in his ear (an “aura” or warning of a potential seizure), but the seizures no longer come.

He is on two medications for now, as a precaution for the first few years after surgery. Pirouzmand has started driving again and he is hard at work studying for his university degree.

During his treatment at Keck Hospital, he realized the specific field he wants to pursue — electrical engineering. Being in the hospital, with electrodes implanted in his brain, he felt like a living-breathing embodiment of science at its best.

“In one moment, engineering and neuroscience and medical school were all combining to cure the patient — me — of epilepsy,” Pirouzmand says. “It’s kind of amazing.”

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At the USC Comprehensive Epilepsy Center, we’re here for you every step of the way. From diagnosis to rehabilitation, our team makes sure that you receive the most comprehensive care available.
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Candace Pearson
Candace Pearson is a freelance writer for Keck Medicine of USC.

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