When I first met Roberto, he was a young, international athlete, making his way in his professional sport. I recall him voicing his frustration about recurring migraines that were affecting his ability to play his sport. I recommended he get a full physical workup when he returned to his homeland. He did, and it was then discovered that he had a small brain tumor. He followed the advice of his doctors but found that the pain medications prescribed by his neurosurgeon were leaving him off his game, both mentally and physically. But then it got worse. Soon Roberto was experiencing seizures, and a follow-up brain scan confirmed that the tumor was increasing in size. He was placed on seizure medication and soon thereafter had surgery to remove the entire tumor. The good news was the tumor was benign; the bad news was the headaches and the seizures continued. In fact, they got progressively worse. He would experience migraines several times a week with extreme sensitivity to light and sound. Not only was this debilitating, but he was also seeing a decline in his mental acuity and the sharpness of his reflexes. His short term memory was off and he was unable to play his sport at a professional level.

I saw Roberto a year after our first introduction. He was greatly changed. He moved slower and his reflexes were slower. It took him longer to process information and he was beleaguered by migraines that lasted for days. At this time, his job had him living in Europe and it was there that he spent a week in an epilepsy hospital for evaluation and treatment. They discovered the cause of his seizures to be the scar tissue from the brain tumor’s surgery site. They administered several drug seizure combinations but these affected Roberto’s memory and emotions and he was struggling with depression. People don’t realize that seizure medication can cause even emotional issue and depression. Nothing was helping much.  They suggested more surgery to remove the scar tissue but there was a risk he may end up with more scar tissue. In fact, with any type of surgery or invasive method, be it heat or laser, there is a risk of developing more scar tissue, increasing the seizures, and leaving the patient permanently on seizure medication. Roberto was left with few options and a bleak future of being on seizure medications that did not make him feel good.

Desperate for alternatives, he came to me. We decided on a two-pronged approach. The first was the administration of a drug that has been on the market for a long time, used primarily to treat ulcerative colitis. This off-label use of the drug gave Roberto relief of his headaches within 24 hours. But the seizures continued. Two weeks after this first treatment, we administered the second prong: umbilical cord stem cells.

I need to clarify that no baby is harmed in the harvesting of umbilical cord stem cells. These cells are taken from a consenting mother. Both mother and child are deemed healthy and the cells are washed and checked for multiple defects. Think of it like the birth “packaging”: Baby is delivered healthy and happy and all those cells used to build that baby is still to be found in the umbilical cord that is now essentially “birth waste”.

In Roberto’s case, those umbilical cord stem cells, instead of building a baby, were being used to repair the scar tissue in his brain.

It’s been 10 weeks since Roberto got the stem cells in a specific vascular system in his body. The frequency and intensity of his seizures have decreased. He is experiencing a seizure once every 4 weeks and they last between 2-3 minutes instead of 20 minutes. The intensity of the seizures have dropped by about 80%. In addition, his cognitive acuity is returning.

So what is the problem with seizure medications? If surgery isn’t an option, surely these are a great solution? I agree. Seizure medications are extremely useful and can help patients reclaim their lives for a season. However, these drugs come at a cost – both financial and physical. Ideally, seizure medications should only be taken for a short period of time, giving the body time to heal and doctors time to act. A number of scientific papers have concluded that many seizure medications, used over time, cause cognitive decline.

I have seen this trend in my own patients. I have patients come in to see me who have been on these medications for 20 plus years, and their mental decline is quite noticeable. Happily the seizures are under control but family members notice the costly side effect: the painful onset of dementia. Most seizure studies are not looking beyond 1 year of treatment, where there is no trace of dementia. Dementia is presenting itself in the 20-30 year mark.

As I have previously shared, even my very youngest patients and their families are impacted by seizures,  and the side effects of seizure medications. One of my patients is a young girl born with seizures caused by a genetic defect. Her doctors placed her on seizure medication for the first 9 years of her life. The medications made her lethargic and incapable of learning. She received the umbilical cord stem cells with the same technique administered to Roberto, which is the same technique I use on my stroke patients. A year later, she was off all her seizure medications and there were no signs of seizures – a fact verified by the EEG studies of her brain. It is now 3 years post treatment and still no seizures.

So what do we conclude? Seizure medicine has its place but, used over extended periods of time, it comes at a price. Umbilical cord stem cells appear to have the ability to repair some of the damage that causes seizures. More study is required but I’m encouraged by the results I’m seeing in my patients.