Fisher , page 1
Photic- and pattern-induced seizures: a Review for the Epilepsy
Foundation of America Working Group
Robert S. Fisher 1, Graham Harding 2, Giuseppe Erba 3, Gregory L. Barkley 4, Arnold
1 Department of Neurology and Neurological Sciences, Stanford Medical Center, Stanford, CA
2 Clinical Neurophysiology Unit, Aston University, Birmingham, England, UK
3 Department of Neurology, University of Rochester, New York
4 Henry Ford Comprehensive Epilepsy Program, Henry Ford Hospital, Detroit, MI
5 Department of Psychology, University of Essex, Colchester, Essex, England
Robert S. Fisher, M.D., Ph.D.
Maslah Saul MD Professor of Neurology
Stanford Medical Center, Room A343
300 Pasteur Drive
Stanford, CA 94305-5235
RUNNING TITLE: Photic-induced seizures, a review
KEY WORDS: seizures, epilepsy, photosensitivity, reflex seizures, review
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Purpose: This report summarizes background material presented to a consensus conference on
visually-provoked seizures, convened by the Epilepsy Foundation of America.
Methods: A comprehensive review of literature was performed.
Results: Photosensitivity, an abnormal EEG response to light or pattern stimulation, occurs in
approximately 0.3 – 3% of the population. The estimated prevalence of seizures from light
stimuli is approximately 1 per 10,000, or 1 per 4,000 individuals 5-24 years old. People with
epilepsy have a 2-14% chance of having seizures precipitated by light or pattern. In the Pokemon
cartoon incident in Japan, 685 children visited a hospital in reaction to red-blue flashes on
broadcast television. Only 24% who had a seizure during the cartoon had previously experienced
a seizure. Photic or pattern stimulation can provoke seizures in predisposed individuals, but such
stimulation is not known to increase the chance of subsequent epilepsy. Intensities of 0.2 – 1.5
million candlepower are in range to trigger seizures. Frequencies of 15-25 Hz are most
provocative, but the range is 1-65 Hz. Light-dark borders can induce pattern-sensitive seizures,
and red color also is a factor. Seizures can be provoked by certain TV shows, movie screen
images, videogames, natural stimuli (e.g, sun on water), public displays, and many other sources.
Conclusions: Recommendations on reducing risk of seizures have been developed by agencies
in the UK, Japan, and the International Telecommunications Union, affiliated with the UN. The
Epilepsy Foundation of America has developed a consensus of medical experts and scientists on
this subject, reported in an accompanying work.
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On 8/31/04, the Epilepsy Foundation of America held a workshop to bring together
expert knowledge about photic or pattern-induced seizures (PPIS). The purpose was to begin to
develop a foundation in the United States for considering how best to describe and to reduce the
risk of seizures provoked by certain types of visual stimuli. A companion paper (1) presents the
expert consensus recommendations. This paper reviews background literature on photic and
II. History of photosensitivity
Apulius is said to have reported a seizure induced by watching a potter's wheel in 125
AD (2). However, since the potter’s wheel was solid at this date the seizure could not have been
due to photosensitivity from flashing spokes (3). Gowers first described PPIS in 1885, with
reference to a girl who had seizures when going into bright sunshine (4). In 1932, Radovici (5)
described eyelid myoclonias and absence seizures in response to eyelid closure while looking at
bright light. Livingston described seizures in response to flickering on TV (6). General reviews
can be found in several works (2, 7-15).
Gastaut (16) studied 35 patients who had seizures while watching television. They
distinguished patients who had seizures from those who had fainting episodes, and those who
had frequent seizures likely to be coincidently related to watching television. In the remainder,
they believed that there was some relationship to watching television, and they documented
abnormalities on the patients’ EEGs. Pattern sensitivity in photosensitive subjects was first
reported by Bickford and associates in 1953 (17).
PPIS from television program content (as opposed to the flicker from the refresh rate of
the raster scan of the screen) came to public awareness only gradually, on the basis of a series of
publicized events. In the 1980's, frequent flashes from targets and guns in a US television show
called "Captain Powers" induced a seizure in a young male viewer (18). In 1993, an
advertisement for "Golden Wonder, Pot Noodle" was shown in the UK. This commercial
employed rapidly flashing contrast changes, and induced three seizures on its first showing. The
UK regulatory commission for television (Independent Television Commission or ITC) solicited
guidelines for photic stimulation on TV commercials (18). Subsequent violation of these
guidelines led to 13 further known incidents of TV-induced seizures (18). The "Pocket Monster"
incident in Japan, discussed below, was perhaps the most dramatic.
III. Types of Sensitivity to Light
Terminology relevant to photic- or pattern-induces seizures (PPIS) is often imprecise.
Discussions may refer to photosensitivity, to seizures provoked by photic or visual pattern
stimulation, to a “photomyoclonic” response with no seizures, to “photoconvulsive” or
“photoparoxysmal” EEG changes in the absence of clinical manifestations, or to the
development of long-term epilepsy. Each of these has different clinical significance and possibly
different mechanisms. Therefore, definition of terms is in order. Since there is no authoritative
compendium for each of these definitions, we operationally will define our terms here.
Formatted: Bullets and
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Photic induced-seizure: A seizure provoked by visual stimulation. The usual stimulus is a
flashing light, but can be patterns of lines, gratings, checkerboards or other configurations.
Photoparoxysmal response (PPR): An abnormal EEG response to light or pattern, consisting of
spikes, spike-waves, or intermittent slow waves. To be classified as photoparoxysmal, the spikes
should not be confined to occipital regions and should not be confused with the normal visual
evoked response that is phase-locked to the flash.
Photosensitivity:An abnormal response of the EEG to light or pattern stimulation, consisting of
Photomyoclonic response: Forehead and muscle twitching in response to light flash,
disappearing with eye opening. Photomyoclonic responses are most common in subjects with
early alcohol withdrawal and in anxious patients. A photomyoclonic response is considered to be
a myogenic component of eye flutter, and not an epileptiform pattern. It is more frequently seen
at low frequency stimulation and it disappears when the interval between stimuli is shorter than
the eyelid reflex latency
B. Categories of EEG Responses that are Associated with Photosensitivity
When performing routine EEGs, most laboratories measure the response to photic
stimulation at flash rates from about 5 to 25 Hz. Response to patterns is not assayed, except in
special situations. Kasteleijn-Nolst Trenité and colleagues (19) and Rubboli et al. (20) have
recommended systematic parameters for EEG labs to use to test for photic or pattern sensitivity.
Response to intermittent photic stimulation (IPS) is considered normal unless the response shows
marked asymmetry over the two sides of the head, or spikes. Some authors grade the degree of
abnormality of photic stimulation, with spikes outlasting the photic stimuli, and spikes spreading
beyond parietal-occipital areas graded more abnormal. Most photoparoxysmal responses do not
outlast the stimuli, but still may correlate with epilepsy (21). Absence of photic response to IPS
is normal, as is a prominent photic response, provided that it lacks spikes or asymmetry. The
view of the current authors, however, is that spikes restricted to occipital regions during IPS are
not currently known to have clinical significance.
A widely used EEG classification system was proposed by Waltz (22). In this scheme,
Class I represents occipital spikes; II, local parieto-occipital spikes and biphasic slow waves; III,
parieto-occipital spikes and biphasic slow waves spreading to frontal regions; IV, generalized
spikes or polyspikes and waves.
Jeavons and Harding (9) categorized the type of EEG response to photostimulation into
three groups: 1. responses seen only in the anterior regions (photomyoclonic); 2. response seen
only in the posterior region (photic driving, visual evoked potentials, occipital spikes); 3.
widespread, anterior and posterior, bilateral response (photoconvulsive). In their experience,
photomyoclonic responses were extremely rare. In distinction to the scheme of Waltz, responses
in category two of the Jeavons and Harding classification were considered normal, including
occipital spikes that did not persist or spread (23). Although occipital spikes may not be
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epileptiform in the Jeavons and Harding classification (which we favor), they may be useful
markers for genetic studies. Category 3 photoconvulsive responses were abnormal, and could be
further divided into six types:
1. Spike-wave bursts, usually around 3/sec
2. Spike-waves at 4-7 (theta) frequencies
3. Polyspikes or polyspike-wave
4. Spikes coinciding with the flash, but extending widely
5. Spike-waves at 3/s lasting at least 5 seconds, and associated with a clinical absence
6. Bilateral, diffuse high-amplitude slow waves
Any of these patterns was sufficient for Jeavons and Harding to classify the patient as
having a photoconvulsive response. Pattern number 1, with 3/sec spike-waves, was most
common, being seen in 88% of the photoconvulsive studies. Jayakar and Chiappa (24)
investigated characteristics of EEG photoparoxysmal responses. Among 3,557 patients who had
EEGs at their institution, 35 patients (1%) had such responses. Most of these patients had a
history of epilepsy. They found no photoparoxysmal responses in 48 normal subjects, which is
likely a function of the small number of normals surveyed, since previous literature reports of
such responses in numbers ranging from 1 to 7% of patients (see discussion of Air Force studies
in the epidemiology section below).
Reilly and Peters (25) found photoparoxysmal responses to be more likely associated
with a clinical history of seizures if the spikes persisted for at least 100 milliseconds after
termination of the flash. Jayakar and Chiappa (24) asserted that photoparoxysmal responses
were rare and any such responses were likely to be associated with epilepsy. Prolonged
photoparoxysmal responses that outlast the stimulus are more likely to be associated with
epilepsy, but the relationship is complex and depends upon whether other epileptiform
abnormalities are observed (26). Clinical correlates of EEG photosensitivity include a variety of
subjective and objective phenomena, such as impaired consciousness, jerking on one or both
sides of the body, eye opening and closing, and discomfort in the eyes (27). In carefully
screened, asymptomatic populations, a photoparoxysmal response occurs in less than 1% of a
sample of 100 adult subjects (28) and therefore is statistically unlikely to exceed 5%. Changes
in visual fixation, rather than flashing lights, can account for some rare instances of so-called
“fixation-off epilepsy” (29).
IV. Epidemiology of Photosensitivity
The prevalence of “photosensitivity” has been said to range from less than one in 10,000
to “5-9%” (30, 31). This wide variance stems mainly from two factors: lack of clarity in what
condition is being reported, and bias in referral populations. The prevalence of photosensitivity
is far higher than is the prevalence of PPIS. Discussions about populations “at-risk” of a PPIS are
even more problematic, because most individuals at risk will never have had an EEG, many
EEGs do not adequately test for photosensitivity (32), and the value of photosensitivity in
predicting an actual seizure is not known. Additionally, some individuals may have a PPIS
without demonstrating photosensitivity on the EEG, because of inadequate stimuli during the
EEG, medications or chance variation.
For the most part, asymptomatic individuals do not have EEGs. Therefore, any study
based upon patients referred to EEG laboratories will be biased towards individuals more likely
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to have an abnormal EEG or consist of individuals for whom EEGs are a part of a routine
medical assessment, such as pilots. Among patients with certain types of epilepsy, for example
juvenile myoclonic epilepsy, the prevalence of photosensitivity can be 15-20% (33), or even
higher (34). Approximately 0.7-1.0% of the world’s population has diagnosed epilepsy (35),
defined as seizure, in conjunction with a disorder of the brain, characterized by an enduring
predisposition to generate epileptic seizures (36). An unknown number of individuals with no
prior evidence of epilepsy have the potential for seizures precipitated by flashing lights. As noted
above, large population studies on EEG photosensitivity are lacking. An exception is found in
Air Force studies, in which a paroxysmal EEG abnormality is taken as a disqualification for
flying aircraft. Among 13,658 men aged 17-25 years applying for Royal Air Force training, 48
(0.35%) demonstrated photoparoxysmal EEG responses (37). A Danish Air Force study (38)
found a somewhat higher number of EEG abnormalities in 2.4% of 5,893 asymptomatic
applicants. The abnormality consisted of interictal spikes in six patients (0.1%) and a
photoparoxysmal responses in 2.2% (38). Individuals with a photoparoxysmal response were
denied flight training. Even though air force studies performed bulk EEG screening, the
population studied was likely to be healthier than was the population at large, in that ill
individuals, or those with a history of epilepsy, do not tend to apply for military flight training.
Such studies also exhibit bias towards males, who have a lower incidence of photosensitivity
(39). Since the prevalence of photosensitivity is higher in the younger population and in people
with epilepsy than in people without epilepsy, the Air Force estimates of photosensitivity are
most likely underestimates.
One review of 20,000 EEGs discovered eight patients who had seizures induced by light
in a natural setting, 17 with seizures that could be induced in a laboratory setting, and 225 with
photoparoxysmal EEG activity only (40). This would suggest that about 1.25% of individuals
might have an abnormal EEG response to certain types of light stimulation, among those referred
for EEGs. Another study (41) showed that 6.5% of 408 patients with a single seizure had EEG
changes in response to light flash. A history of a prior seizure was associated with a higher risk
for light sensitivity (41). Steinkruger (42) estimated that PPIS occur in one of every 10,000
people in the general population, a number at least 4-fold less than the estimate of those having
an abnormal EEG response to IPS.
Children are more prone than are adults to photoparoxysmal EEG changes and PPIS.
Doose and Waltz (43) found photoparoxysmal responses in 7.6% of 662 normal children, but
used "looser criteria" for an abnormal response to IPS than those used now. Eeg-Olofsson and
Petersen (44, 45) found that 8% of 673 normal children aged 1-15 years, and 1% of 181
individuals 16-21 years old had an abnormal response to intermittent photic stimulation.
The December 16, 1997 Pokemon incident in Japan provides an inadvertent “experiment-
in-nature” to judge the prevalence of photic-induced seizures in a population of children. In a
Pocket Monstor cartoon, a rocket-launch sequence, with flashing red, then blue screens,
changing at 12.5/sec for about four seconds, was shown on Tokyo TV, resulting in hospital visits
by 685 children (46-48). Subsequent studies suggested that at least 560 of these children had
seizures, although some had migraines, visual distortions, nausea and motion sickness or other
non-seizure symptomatology. Approximately three-quarters of the children had no prior history
of epilepsy (49), and more than half the children who had experienced a previous convulsion had
a history of a seizure induced by television (50). Given that about 7 million children were
watching the children’s program, this suggests that roughly 1 in 10,000 children had a seizure in
response to this photic stimulation. This figure is probably an under-estimate of the total
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population of pediatric patients able to have seizures in response to visual stimulation, since
some might have been sensitive to other frequencies of stimulation or to patterns of light. On the
other hand, photosensitivity is less common in adults, so the estimate of 1 in 10,000 would
overestimate the global population figure. The incidence estimated from the Pokemon incident
thus is remarkably similar to that obtained by Quirk et al. (51) in a study based upon EEG lab
surveys in the UK (see below).
Genetics plays a role in tendency to develop PPIS. Waltz (23) in Germany performed
family studies of 41 patients with PPIS. In this study, 50% of siblings with one photosensitive
parent were themselves photosensitive, suggesting a dominant mode of inheritance of the
tendency. A 1989 study (52) found that a family history of PPIS was present in 14% of 2,053
patients presenting to a seizure clinic with any type of seizure. Takahashi (53) performed EEGs
on 21 siblings of 17 patients with photoparoxysmal responses. Generalized paroxysmal EEG
discharges occurred in 24% of the siblings. The prevalence and incidence of photosensitivity
varies with age, being higher in the young. Onset of PPIS usually arises at age 12-15 years (9,
In Great Britain, the annual incidence of new-onset seizures due to unequivocal
photosensitivity was 1.1/100,000 in the overall population, but 5.7/100,000 in the age range 7-19
(54). PPIS occur in 1/4000 of individuals between 5 and 24 years. Photosensitivity and photic-
induced seizures usually manifest around puberty, and 90% of patients with PPIS have an initial
seizure before 20 years of age (18). However, it is an oversimplification to state that individuals
grow out of photosensitivity. Harding and associates (55) and Jeavons et al. (39) demonstrated
that approximately two-thirds of 100 people with photosensitivity continued to show
photosensitivity on the EEG, and in some instances continued to have photic-induced seizures,
for a mean of 14 years after the initial diagnosis. In contrast, photosensitivity disappeared over
long-term follow-up in 25 of 42 photosensitive patients (56). Scott and Elian (57) explicitly
studied photoparoxysmal responses in 52 patients over 30 years of age, demonstrating that
photosensitive responses can be identified in adults.
Female to male ratio for photosensitivity ranges from 1.5 – 2.0 (18, 39, 58). However,
males predominate among video game - induced seizures, because many more boys than girls
play such games. Racial or ethnic background may make a difference in incidence of
photosensitivity. In Africa, photosensitive EEG responses were seen in in 2.5% of the
Caucasian, 1.3% of the mixed race, and in 0.9% of the African population subgroups (59).
Among adult Arab seizure patients, 24/327 (7.3%) showed EEG spikes to light flash (60).
A PPIS does not require a prior diagnosis of epilepsy – in fact, for many individuals who
have such a seizure, it is their first seizure. The prevalence of photic or pattern-induced
abnormal EEG discharges is higher for those known to have epilepsy. Among people presenting
with new-onset epilepsy, approximately 2% have PPIS (51). People with primary generalized
epilepsies are more likely than those with partial epilepsies to be sensitive to light; although any
type of seizure can be associated with light sensitivity. In a group of 61 children with juvenile
myoclonic epilepsy (JME; age range 7-16), 90% were photosensitive, defined as a generalized
spike or spike-wave occurring at least twice during photic stimulation (34).
Photoconvulsive seizures are most common with generalized processes, including acute
alcohol withdrawal syndromes (61) and idiopathic generalized epilepsy (62). However, partial
seizures also can be provoked by flashing lights or patterns. Among 80 patients demonstrating
some form of PPIS (52), precipitants comprised TV in 48%, sunlight or electric lights in 7%.
Apparently generalized tonic-clonic seizures were seen in 44% and secondarily generalized
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seizures in 35% (52). The prevalence of focal seizures among those with photic-induced
seizures ranges from 2.8% (3) to 29% (10), and as high in some studies as 60% (63). Most of
these focal seizures were spontaneous, not photic-induced. Focal paroxysmal responses in the
EEG have been correlated with focal seizures, and generalized photoparoxysmal responses with
generalized seizures (64). Most individuals with reported video game - induced seizures have
photoparoxysmal responses in EEG testing, but some do not (65).
Photosensitivity is stable over intervals of days in a given individual, if allowances are
made for circadian (time of day) variation (66). This stability allows EEG measures of
photosensitivity to be useful for screening of antiepileptic drugs as a model for testing AEDs
(66). In such screening, the acute suppression of photosensitivity serves as evidence of
antiepileptic action but not of long-term efficacy for treatment of photosensitive epilepsy.
Concurrent conditions may predispose certain individuals to photoconvulsive attacks
while viewing a screen. Such factors include alcohol withdrawal (67) and sleep deprivation (68).
Among patients with epilepsy, about 2-5% can have seizures precipitated by watching television
(9, 69), but not every study has found a high prevalence of television sensitivity in patients with
What is the incidence of seizures precipitated by video games? No definitive answer to
this question is yet available. A three-month Department of Trade and Industry study involving
118 patients (51, 54) surveyed about “90%” of all EEG departments in Great Britain over a
three-month time during 1993-1994, for all patients presenting seizures with photosensitivity,
and all people whose presenting seizure occurred while playing in electronic screen game,
whether or not they were photosensitive on the EEG. Seizures were categorized by direct review
according to the criteria of Waltz (see above). Type IV responses (generalized spike-waves) were
most closely associated with a tendency toward seizures.
Patients were divided into group A: seizure definitely considered to have been triggered
by playing the screen game, including a requirement for type IV photosensitivity. Group B were
probable cases; Group C were people with seizures unlikely to be related to the screen game.
Among the group A definite cases, 43/46 had the presenting seizure while playing the electronic
game and 3/46 within 10 minutes of finishing a session. Among the 25 group B cases who were
classified as probable (mostly because they had type 1-3 EEG photosensitivity), 22/25 had a
seizure while playing and 3/25 within 10 minutes of finishing. Most of the seizures occurred
within 30 minutes of starting play. An estimated annual incidence of an initial seizure triggered
by a video game was 1.2 per 100,000, and 5.7 per 100,000 among children 7-19 years old. This
can be compared to an overall incidence of new cases of seizures of all types of 55 per 100,000
in this age group. Precipitating factors were evenly divided between broadcast TV and
electronic screen games, although more hours were spent watching TV. Sleep deprivation was
an associated factor. Possible inaccuracies in the estimates discussed by the authors derived from
the likelihood that not every individual with PPIS was captured (particularly if a seizure was
mild), and not every EEG identified photosensitivity. This study remains one of the very few
population studies of seizures induced by light stimulation.
Seizures induced by patterns occur with an incidence of about 30% of flash-sensitive
patients in the case of stationary patterns, and about 70% for vibrating patterns (14). Individual
patients may have sensitivity to flash, to certain patterns or to both. Patterns particularly likely to
produce either an abnormal EEG response or a seizure in susceptible individuals include lines or
gratings, especially in an oscillating motion (71-74); however, a wide variety of patterns can
provoke seizures in particular patients.
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V. Mechanisms of Photosensitivity
Why does a light flash induce a seizure? Only partial answers are available. Cellular
mechanisms are difficult to study in patients because of ethical and practical constraints. Animal
models of photic-induced seizures are available, for example, photic-sensitive chickens (75) or
light-sensitive baboons (76). If a seizure-producing drug is applied in low concentration to visual
cortex of a rabbit, then a continuous progression can be seen from normal visual evoked
potentials to light flash and epileptiform spikes evoked by light flash, as the epilepsy develops
(77). However, the extent to which findings in these models predict or explain human epilepsy is
unknown. It would be very useful to have a validated animal model as a screening tool for visual
Seizures involve synchronization of large networks of brain cells, so that the cells fire in
unison during a seizure. EEG during a seizure reflects summed synchronous activity of millions
of brain cells. During normal awake brain activity, cells fire in independent patterns, and EEG
remains low voltage. Photic abnormalities in cortex probably arise from mechanisms that process
visual information, and these may be quite normal. Photosensitivity can occur in patients whose
vision is normal, not only as regards acuity, but as regards the ability to see low-contrast gratings
that would, at higher contrasts, elicit seizures (14). Wilkins (14, 78) has pointed out that the
visual stimuli that provoke seizures are “strong” stimuli in that they (1) have low thresholds (2)
interfere with (or mask) the perception of other target stimuli; (3) are able to trigger relatively
high amplitude visual evoked potentials (4) result in relatively high cerebral blood oxygenation.
Meldrum and Wilkins (79) on the basis of pharmacological evidence postulated a diffuse
insufficiency of GABAergic inhibition as one possible mechanism for photosensitivity.
Pyramidal cells share inhibitory processes and when strong stimuli result in a high level of
excitation in pyramidal neurons these shared inhibitory processes are compromised, resulting in
a spread of excitation. A sudden sensory stimulus can engage sensory regions of brain and cause
brain cells in that region to act in unison.
Binnie et al. (71) showed that gratings that drift continuously toward the center of gaze
are not provocative for epileptiform discharges, although those that move with the same velocity
but repeatedly change their direction of movement or phase (black-white; white-black) can be
highly provocative. Stationary gratings pose a risk somewhere between these two extremes.
Wilkins and colleagues (80) argued that the contours from drifting gratings move into and out of
the overlapping receptive fields of cortical neurons, providing a sustained level of firing but
without any temporal synchrony. Gratings that repeatedly change direction of movement cause a
synchronous change in the population of neurons firing by virtue of the direction selectivity of
the receptive fields. Similarly gratings that change their phase also synchronise the firing of large
numbers of cells. It is presumably when excessive numbers of cells are acting in concert
(“hypersynchrony”), that inhibitory mechanisms can be insufficient to meet demand, and the
synchronised firing spreads. Limited regions of synchrony can produce EEG changes
(photoconvulsive or photoparoxysmal response) with no behavioral seizures.
The visual cortex is located in the occipital lobe of the brain. The most posterior part of
the visual cortex is sensitive to light, more anteriorly to edges, and even more anteriorly to
moving or changing edges and other complex geometric patterns (81, 82). Individual brain cells
respond to edges in particular orientations, with some cells being excited by a given pattern and
others inhibited. Thus, a visual stimulus selectively activates certain regions of brain containing
cells “tuned” to respond to the characteristics of that stimulus. In a series of psychophysical
Fisher , page 10
studies of the EEG response to pattern in photosensitive patients, Wilkins and colleagues (14)
have shown how the response varies with the line length within the pattern, the angular subtense
of the pattern, its spatial frequency, duty cycle, luminance and contrast. The response is greater
when the image is fused in binocular vision, indicating binocular interaction, one of several lines
of evidence indicating a trigger in the visual cortex. From a series of inferences they conclude
that seizures begin when normal physiological excitation in the occipital cortex exceeds a critical
amount. Stimulation in the central visual field is as effective as that in the periphery when
cortical magnification is taken into account. Although large areas of the visual cortex appear to
be equipotential for evoking seizures, the seizure threshold in one cerebral hemiphere can differ
markedly from that in the other, even in patients with primary generalised epilepsy.
The normal response to a light flash or reversal of black-white edges is a synchronous
firing of neurons in the visual cortex. This can be measured with computer EEG enhancement
techniques in normal individuals, and is called the “visual evoked potential” or the “visual
evoked response.” Patients with PPIS tend to have enhanced visual evoked potentials to light
flash or checkerboard (16, 83). Porciatti and colleagues (83) show that the increase in the size of
the evoked potential with increasing contrast is abnormal in photosensitive patients at high
contrasts, which is consistent with the above hypothesis that the seizures are triggered when
normal physiological excitation exceeds a critical level as a result of a failure of shared
inhibitory processes. Dopaminergic mechanisms may be particularly important in
Common wisdom has held that photoconvulsive attacks begin by affecting the occipital
lobe, the region of brain processing of visual information. However, discharges in the
photosensitive baboon, Papio papio, often begin frontally in the region of motor cortex (85, 76),
for reasons that appear to involve periocular afferents. Occasional patients also appear to have
EEG frontal origin of seizures in response to visual stimuli, for equally obscure reasons, although
in others a progression from posterior regions to frontal can be seen. A study by Matsuoka (86)
of the children in Japan with PPIS and five patients with reflex writing seizures was done to
investigate the region of EEG onset of seizures. The photic induction was performed by red
flickering light at 20 candles/meter squared (cd/m2). Seizures tended to begin in the occipital
region and spread anteriorly. Takasaka and colleagues (87) utilized computer measurements of
coherence between different EEG channels to determine where PPIS began. In patients with
predominantly occipital discharges, the occipital EEG leads paced discharges elsewhere.
However, for patients with generalized photosensitive EEG patterns, frontal leads appeared to
lead the discharges.
Studies utilizing magnetoencephalography (MEG) (88) documented enhancement of
phase synchrony in the gamma-band (30-120 Hz), harmonically related to the frequency of
photic stimulation, and preceeding the PPRs. Their findings were consistent with the idea that
normal synchronised activity of large numbers of cells brought about by repetitive visual
stimulation (evidenced by the harmonic gamma activity) results in a failure of inhibitory
processes and culminates in the pathological synchronisation of the epileptic discharge.
Magnetoencephalography was utilized by Inoue and associates (89) to investigate localization of
electronic screen game-induced spikes. Patients who were photosensitive had MEG-documented
posterior predominance of source dipoles in patients who had spikes during electronic screen
games (89), but additional dipoles were localized to the supplementary motor area, peri-Sylvian
region and medial temporal lobe.
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Functional MRI and magnetic resonance spectroscopy (90) showed elevated lactate levels
in occipital cortex in the resting state and increased visual cortex activation with photic
stimulation. Other altered areas included motor cortex and posterior cingulate gyrus in the
medial frontal region between the hemispheres. PET studies with oxygen-15 (91) showed that
statistically significant increases in regional cerebral blood flow occurred in occipital cortex,
Brodmann's areas 17, 18, 19, hypothalamus, caudate, hippocampus and scattered other regions.
When visual stimuli are restricted to one portion of the visual field (left-right, superior-
inferior), the evoked EEG response tends to be maximal in the part of the occipital lobe
responsible for processing that part of the visual field (92). The likelihood of generating a
photosensitive response in a susceptible individual appears proportional to the amount of visual
cortex activated in either hemisphere by a suitable stimulus (14, 78). Although occipital lobe is
the key structure in generation of PPIS, occasional patients with complex partial seizures that can
be triggered by light flash can be cured by a standard temporal lobectomy (93). In properly
localized cases, complex partial seizures triggered by light may respond to temporal lobectomy
even when photic spikes continue in the occipital lobe (94). This suggests surgical interruption
of a seizure propagation pathway, or that a “critical mass” of synchronised neural activity is
necessary for a seizure.
Evidence is substantial from animal models and clinical experience to support the
concept that photic or patten stimuli can induce seizures in susceptible individuals. There is,
however, no evidence that photic or pattern stimulation leads to epilepsy, the condition of
spontaneously and chronically recurrent seizures.
VI. Characteristics of the Stimuli
Characteristics of flickering stimuli that influence the likelihood of provoking a seizure
are listed in the monograph by Jeavons and Harding (9), and the characteristics of patterned
stimuli in the monograph by Wilkins (14). These include intensity, duration, distance from the
source, background illumination, diffusion of the pattern, contrast, type of pattern, color, open
vs. closed eyes, one vs. two-eye viewing, and stage of sleep-wakefulness cycle.
Whether an individual is found to be sensitive to light or pattern will depend upon how
the patient is tested in the EEG laboratory. Different laboratories use different protocols to
perform EEGs. Some do not perform any photic stimulation as part of the routine EEG, and few
employ visual patterns as part of the routine EEG. In 1996, a group met in the Netherlands to
establish consensus on methodology for testing for photosensitivity (32). Characteristics of
stimulators similar to that of the Grass photo-stimulator were specified. EEG was recommended
to include a common reference montage of at least 16 channels distributed around the head. The
subject should be positioned with eyes (or nasion) at least 0.3 m from the photic stimulator with
dim surrounding illumination. Flashes should be delivered in separate trains of 10 seconds for
each frequency with intervals of 7 seconds minimum. Subject's eyes should be open initially,
and then closed after five seconds until the stimulation ceases. Testing frequency should include
1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, and 20 flashes per second. A second sequence should begin at
60 Hz and decrease through 50, 40, 30, 25 and 20 flashes per second. The stimulation should be
stopped if epileptiform discharges are observed. The stimulation procedure should last a
maximum of six minutes. The electroencephalographer should be aware that repeating a
frequency can lead either to potentiation (increase) or habituation (decrease) of the
photoparoxysmal response (95).
Fisher , page 12
A. Brightness, contrast and size
The few studies that have addressed the issue agree that seizures from light stimulation
are more likely with bright light than with dim light (96, 97). A variety of different units and
measurements for brightness are used. A difficulty with measurement arises because the flashes
from conventional xenon discharge lamps are intensely bright, but very brief. Stroboscopes
designed to induce EEG abnormalities recorded in the laboratory can deliver flashes with
durations of 10 microseconds and 400,000-1.5 million candlepower at 2 feet (98). This is
equivalent to 1.44 joules, or, more meaningfully, 22 lumen sec/foot-squared. At 1 (lumen
second) per (foot squared) = 10.764 s cd / m2. This is equivalent to 237 cd/m2, which compares
to 100-200 cd/m2 for conventional TVs. High-contrast stimuli are more likely to provoke
seizures than do bright lights against a light background (97), within variable individual
susceptibility to brightness (99). Spreading light more diffusely over the visual field increases the
risk for induced seizures, provided that luminance is kept constant (100). Chatrian and
associates (72, 98) studied four patients with pattern sensitive seizures. Monocular stimuli tend
to be ineffective in provoking seizures (72, 98). The effect of luminance on producing seizures
is described in a sigmoid curve. At very low (scotopic) light levels there is little effect; over the
mesopicl range there is a very steep effect of increasing luminosity; and then above a maximum
threshold, well into the photopic levels, the curve flattens out once again. Patterns confined to
the periphery of the visual field can provoke epileptiform EEG activity, provided they project to
a sufficient area of the visual cortex (14).
B. Flash rates
Repetition rate of flash or pattern is second only to brightness in its influence over PPIS.
The repetition range to provoke seizures usually lies between 15 and 25 cycles per second , but
for some patients the upper limit of sensitivity can be as high as 65 cycles per second (9). Flashes
at rates up to 45 cycles per second can evoke EEG discharges and myoclonus (101). A rare
patient will have seizures in response to single bright flashes. One patient could produce seizures
and EEG changes by mental imagery of flash (102), and another by eye blinks alone, in the
absence of measurable photosensitivity (103).
FIGURE 1 NEAR HERE
Figure 1 (adapted from 18) shows the distribution of the percent of people with a
photoparoxysmal EEG response to intermittent photic stimulation at different flash rates. A
broad peak can be seen at about 12-30 flashes per second. The mains frequency is 60 hertz in the
United States and 50 Hz in Europe; fluorescent lights flash at twice the mains frequency. In
Japan, both 100 and 120 Hz are used in different regions. However, when the bulbs become old,
the flashes may not be equal intensity, and the lamps may emit flicker with frequency
components at values significant for PPIS. Binnie and associates (104) studied 20 patients found
to be photosensitive on routine EEG investigation, by exposure to fluorescent lights. No patient
was sensitive to normal fluorescent lighting, but some were minimally sensitive when the lamp
was defective and emitted 50 hertz flicker. Fluorescent lights were not felt by these authors to be
Fisher , page 13
a major public risk factor for photic seizures, although some photosensitive patients do complain
of (normally functioning) fluorescent lighting.
Red colored flicker, at wavelengths of 660-720 nm, is more likely to provoke seizures
than is blue or white of the same overall intensity (105, 106), although some studies (107) have
disputed that color makes a major difference. Sensitivity to color depends upon the type of
epilepsy (108), such that with myoclonic epilepsies brightness is a key factor, but with
symptomatic generalized and localization-related epilepsies, color is an important factor.
Individual differences in the effects of coloured light may cause some patients to benefit from
spectral filters that in other patients would exacerbate their sensitivity (109).
A surprisingly high proportion of photosensitive patients are sensitive not only to flicker
but also to patterns, as first documented by Stefansson and co-workers (74, 110). The proportion
sensitive to both forms of stimulation depends upon their spatial and temporal characteristics.
Using patterns on a television monitor, Harding and Jeavons (3) found that 30% of
photosensitive patients also were pattern sensitive. Parallel lines or stripes are more seizure-
provoking than are wavy lines or polka-dot patterns. Visual angles separating lines were most
seizure-provoking at 4-40 minutes of an arc (60 minutes is 1 degree), i.e., the sensitivity is
maximal at about 3 cycles per degree. Both horizontal and vertical patterns could induce
seizures, and a given individual may be more or less sensitive to a particular orientation. (72, 74,
Oscillating gratings at 15-25 per second (7.5° per second drift velocity), or 2-4 cycles per
degree can be a potent stimulus for seizures in some individuals (14, 71, 112, 113). If the
movement is perpendicular to the lines of the pattern and repeatedly changes direction, so as to
vibrate the pattern at a frequency close to 20 Hz, the movement is extremely provocative for
seizures. If the movement is continuous in one direction, then the pattern is almost without effect
Wilkins, Emmett and Harding (114) have summarized characteristics of patterns likely to
provoke seizures in pattern-sensitive individuals. Stationary, oscillating stripes or black-white
reversals tend to evoke pattern-sensitive discharges; whereas, slow drift of lines in one direction
does not. Striped patterns subtending approximately two degrees are more provocative; as stripes
increase in size, their spatial frequency decreases and there are fewer stripes on the screen. The
effects of the two parameters, change in size and change in spatial frequency, oppose each other.
On a television screen viewed from conventional distances (at which it subtends about 10
degrees at the eye) a stationary pattern with no more than eight light-dark stripe pairs is unlikely
to produce seizures at any size on the screen. An oscillating or alternating pattern is has
equivalent risk when it has no more than five stripe pairs. Furthermore, seizures rarely are
provoked by patterns occupying less than 25% of a screen or lasting for less than half a second.
In real life, a wide variety of stimuli can provoke photic-induced seizures. Newmark and
Penry (2) list television, lightning, car headlights, automobile riding or driving, flickering arc
light, patterns of sunlight, red and white checked tablecloths, sudden appearance of the sun or
bright light, flickering light or sunlight (interrupted light rather than light flash), helicopter
Fisher , page 14
blades, walking by a picket fence, reflections on a wall, reflections on snow or water, home
movies, amusement arcades, discotheques, seizures self-induced by blinking in bright light or
waving outstretched fingers across the eyes. To this list, we also add cathode-ray tubes, video
display tubes, computer monitors, decorative lighting, banner advertisements, public events with
stroboscopic lighting and video games.
E. Other stimulus characteristics
Patients may avoid seizures by covering one eye with the palm of a hand, provided they
have sufficient warning of the seizure onset. However, closing the eyes is not necessarily
effective, and may even be counterproductive because the light diffuses through the closed
eyelids, and the area of retina stimulated with flicker thereby may be increased (9). The opposite
phenomenon also may be observed: some children self-induce PPIS by blinking, attempting to
close their eyelids against the upward deviation of their eyes (which induces eyelid tremor),
head-nodding, waving their outstretched fingers in front of their eyes, or intentionally looking at
striped patterns (10, 115-117). Studies have shown that from 10% (118) to approximately 33%
of the photosensitive children (116) could self-induce seizures by self-inducing flicker.
VII. Seizures from Television
In 1975, Jeavons and Harding (9) reported their widely-cited study on 454 patients with
epilepsy and EEG photosensitivity. Among these, 35% had seizures provoked only while
watching television, 5% had seizures while watching TV or while exposed to other
environmental flashing lights, but not spontaneously and 22% had seizures both spontaneously
and while watching television.
In the United States and Japan, TV screens scan at 60 Hz (National Television Standards
Committee, NTSC standard), but an interlaced double linear raster pattern flickers at 30 hertz,
and can be resolved when the viewer is close to the screen. Televisions trace about 625 lines on
the screen, roughly half of the lines drawn on one scan from top to bottom, and the remaining
half on the next. The two scans of odd-numbered and even-numbered lines alternate
continuously, so as to provide 30-per-second visual stimulation. In Europe (Phase alternating
line, PAL standard), the numbers are 50 Hz and 25 lines per second, respectively. The frequency
range of 15-25 per second is among the most common frequency range for inducing photic
seizures. Since stimulation at 50 flashes per second produces photoparoxysmal responses in 49%
of photosensitive patients; whereas, only 15% of patients are sensitive to 60 flashes per second,
European TV is more likely to induce seizures than is American TV (117). However, factors
that may alter this estimate include visual acuity of the watcher, uniformity of the TV image,
refresh frequency of the screen, ambient lighting in the room and brightness of the screen, among
Early studies (110) documented the association of pattern-sensitive seizures with
horizontal or vertical scan lines on standard (British) televisions. TV characteristics most likely
to provoke seizures were frequency of the TV screen (50 hertz was more provocative than was
100 Hz, the distance from the screen (0.5 m was more provocative than 1 m) and the specific
pattern of the images (119-121). Video display units should be less likely than TVs to provoke
seizures, because VDUs tend to be smaller, less bright, usually refresh at 70 Hz, as opposed to 50
Fisher , page 15
or 60 Hz, and they do not have the interlaced double raster scan that provides a flicker at half of
the scan frequency (113). However, video display computer screens still can produce photic
seizures in the sensitive subject (113). A photoparoxysmal response is to be expected among
most patients who have a seizure while watching TV. Among 13 patients having a seizure to the
Pocket Monster cartoon, 12 had a photoparoxysmal EEG response (122).
VIII. Studies of Video Games
In 1981 Rushton (123) wrote a letter to the Lancet about "Space invader epilepsy." A
near-simultaneous report was filed by Jeavons and colleagues of seizures provoked by a hand-
held video game (124). This was followed by a report in England of seizures during the video
game "Dark Warrior" (125). Several other cases were reported from Europe. The first case in the
United States of seizures associated with video games was reported by Dahlquist and associates
(126). A death of a 14 year-old boy in the UK in 1992 precipitated media coverage (127) and
plans for a conference on the issue, held in London in 1993 (128). In 1994, Ferrie (68) reviewed
15 patients who experienced seizures while playing video games, and discussed these in context
of 20 previously published cases in the English literature, and coined the inaccurate term “video
game epilepsy.” In Ferrie’s review, 27 of 35 cases experienced their first seizure while playing
video game, emphasizing the difficulty of predicting risk factors in the general population.
About two-thirds of these patients had idiopathic generalized epilepsy with tonic-clonic seizures,
and somewhat typical myoclonic jerks during video games. Of the group with idiopathic
generalized epilepsy, 70% were photosensitive to intermittent photic stimulation during
recording of the EEG. The term “video game epilepsy” is inaccurate in two ways: first, the
games provoke seizures, but are not known to cause epilepsy; second, these seizures are not
specific in most cases to video games.
Video-game-induced seizures subsequently have been reported in a total of 553 subjects
(51, 54, 59, 119, 129-133) although some subjects might have been represented in more than one
study. The largest study in this area was that of Kasteleijn-Nolst Trenité and colleagues (131),
who united five study sites in four European countries to collect information on patients with
video game related seizures. A total of 387 patients were studied: 75% female, and 55% less
than 18 years old. In the EEG laboratory, photic stimulation, pattern stimulation, viewing of
television and playing of certain video games were performed. Photic stimulation produced
epileptiform discharges in 85%, 50-hertz television in 45%, and pattern presentation in 28%. In
the study of Graf et al. (59), seizures tended to occur in association with high-intensity, repetitive
flashes or rapid movements across the screen, rapid scene changes, linear patterns rolling or
flickering across the screen. Internal psychological characteristics, such as mental calculations
(134) or sustained attention (135) or changes in pattern but not light flashes (130) can induce
seizures in rare cases.
It can be difficult to decide whether a seizure was provoked by a video game. Seizures
occur spontaneously and in coincidence with a variety of proceeding stimuli. A community-
based study in the United Kingdom by Quirk et al. (51) was performed on 118 patients reported
to have had a seizure within 10 minutes of playing an electronic screen game. Patients were
captured through reports from a consortium of 118 EEG Departments, representing about 90% of
the EEGs done on seizure patients in Great Britain. They classified the 118 patients with
presumed seizures in association with electronic screen games into three groups: A (definite),
Fisher , page 16
with the seizure triggered by playing the game; B (probable), with the seizure probably triggered
by the game; C (unlikely), with probable chance association. Their group divided 46 in A, 25 in
B, 47 in C. Therefore, about 40% definitely had a game-provoked seizure, about 20% may have
had a game-provoked seizure, and about 40% had seizures only coincidentally related to the
William et al. (136) recommended three criteria to associate a seizure with a video game:
1. Repeated occurrence of seizures while playing video games; 2. History of prior
photosensitivity with epileptiform activity triggered by other visual stimuli; 3. EEG
demonstration of photoparoxysmal response including two during video-game playing.
According to the National Survey of Photosensitivity and Seizures Induced by Electronic Screen
Games of the Institute of Neurology, London (51), most of the seizures occurred within the first
30 minutes of playing, but some were delayed, and some occurred within a matter of seconds.
However, the seizure may be a first seizure, with no prior association with photic stimuli and
occasionally no EEG findings. Should such a first seizure occurring while playing a video game
be excluded? There is no clear answer, but most authors have considered a seizure occurring
during a video game to be precipitated by the video game. Seizures occurring more than a few
minutes after cessation of a video game are of questionable relationship, but still may reflect
some, as yet poorly understood persistent brain hyperexcitability.
An occasional patient with a video game-provoked seizure may have no response in the
EEG to intermittent photic stimulation, although this is an exception (73).
Different video games have variations in brightness from scene-to-scene. Ricci and
Vigevano (136) identified four categories of video game factors responsible for triggering
seizures: 1. patient-dependent (the internal sensitivity of the patient to flicker, pattern, etc.); 2.
Screen-dependent factors (size, flicker frequency, number of scan lines, refresh rate, brightness,
contrast); 3. Image-dependent factors (brightness, contrast, lines, colors, flashing, moving
patterns); 4. Software-dependent (opportunities for the player to move a joystick, change the
program or interact – cognitive load also could go here, though not mentioned). Review of 12
video game programs in 30 subjects suggested that a “steady maximal brightness” above 100 lux
was a key factor and could (in the presence of other stimuli characteristics) induce seizures in
susceptible patients (137). We note, parenthetically, that lux is a measure of illuminance, rather
than luminance, so this might more usefully have been expressed in cd/m2 of luminance. Steady
maximal brightness less than 50 was generally safe. By comparison, steady maximal brightness
varied from 6 and 305 lux among the games.
Can individuals with epilepsy, but with no known photoparoxysmal sensitivity safely
play video games? This question was investigated by Millett and colleagues (138) in the study
of 212 patients with epilepsy, all lacking photoparoxysmal or pattern sensitivity abnormalities
during EEG testing. Patients were randomly assigned to a video game playing session or to
other leisure activities. They then crossed over groups, while undergoing video-EEG
monitoring. End point was a clinical seizure. Twenty-five patients experienced a seizure while
participating, 13 during video game play and 12 during other leisure activities. No support was
seen for prohibiting video games in the 95% or greater group of patients with epilepsy who do
not give evidence of photosensitivity.
Similar findings to those of Millett et al. (138) were presented in abstract form by one of
the current authors (Ledin K and Fisher RS, unpublished). The investigators studied 46 patients
playing video games, compared to the same time of day 24 hours later, when not playing a video
game. A total of 20 of the 46 patients had seizures: six while playing video games and fourteen
Fisher , page 17
during the control period. None of the subjects had an abnormal photoparoxysmal response, and
only two had primary generalized seizures. No evidence was found to justify prohibition of video
game playing in patients with partial seizures and no evidence of EEG photosensitivity.
The relative safety of playing video games for the majority of seizure patients is not
uniformly recognized by people with epilepsy. A survey by Millett et al. (139) in the United
Kingdom found that one of thirteen patients in a seizure clinic believed that every individual
with epilepsy was at risk of a seizure from video games, and risk estimation by the patient
population was 2-3 times the realistic risk.
IX. Recommendations in the Literature
Multiple authors and several convened groups have formulated recommendations for
people with PPIS, for manufacturers of devices that might provoke photic- or pattern-induced
seizures, and for governmental regulatory bodies. No one agency speaks authoritatively on this
subject, although the International Standards Organization is in the process of issue a summary
of its workshop. Relatively little discussion of photosensitivity has taken place in the United
Ferrie et al. (68) recommend that patients who have experienced a video game-induced
seizure may be allowed to continue playing in some circumstances. Play should be stopped in
presence of absences, jerking or unusual visual phenomena. Photosensitive patients should avoid
black and white checkered floor tiles or patterns, stripes, light through window vents, rotating
ceiling fans, flashing lights, sitting less than three meters from a television. Funatsuka and
colleagues (113) recommended that pattern-sensitive individuals avoid the following: 1.
Geometric patterns, especially stripes occupying much of the display; 2. Fine patterns with
spatial frequencies exceeding 2 cycles per degree; 3. Frequencies around 20 hertz with pattern-
reversal stimulation; 4. Patterns with large differences in brightness; 5. Rapid pattern
movements. The National Association of Commercial Broadcasters in Japan and Nippon Hoso
Kyokai made recommendations for producers of animated programs. They suggested that
flickering, especially red flickering at more than 3/sec, should be avoided. Reversing of
contrasting images and rapid conversion of images, should be no faster than 3/sec. Stripes,
whorls, and concentric circles should not occupy a large part of the screen.
In their major monograph, Harding and Jeavons (3) made six recommendations for
precautions to be taken by people who are sensitive to flickering lights. These were as follows:
1. View television from eight feet or more; 2. View in a well-lit room with a small lamp on top
of the TV set; 3. Do not approach the TV set to adjust or switch channels; 4. Cover one eye if it
is necessary to go near the TV; 5. Avoid discotheques or places with flashing lights; 6. Wear
polarized glasses on sunny days to reduce flickering reflections from water, etc.
X. Screening devices
Risks pertaining to photosensitivity can be reduced in several ways. One approach is to
prevent the promulgation of seizure-provocative video material and the second is to prevent
individual patients from being exposed to such material.
Preventing provocaltive image sequences
Fisher , page 18
The widespread use of video material that can cause seizures arises because the material
is eye-catching, and can be attractive to individuals whose health is not affected, and indeed to a
few who are seizure prone. Guidelines preventing the broadcast of hazardous video sequences
have been in place in the UK and Japan since 1994 and 1998, respectively. The implementation
of the guidelines previously required human review frame-by-frame, but the UK guidelines have
been implemented in an automatic screening device that is now widely used among UK
broadcasters, developed by Cambridge Research Systems (140). The equipment analyzes a video
sequence for flashes in relevant frequency ranges, flashing red and certain visual patterns.
Potentially provocative material is thereby identified and removed prior to transmission.
Broadcast screening clearly is desirable, but it does not prevent exposure to provocative
sequences of images on video games. The games can be played interactively in countless
pathways, so that the visual features may be different each time the game is played. However,
sequences from games still can be assessed for risk, while recognizing that all possible play
sequences cannot be examined.
Prevention of exposure
Computer-controlled video filters can be developed to attenuate the effect of flicker.
These are called “adaptive temporal filters.” Such a filter (141) was used to modify the notorious
Pocket Monster 12/sec 4-second segment of red flashing eyes. The original cartoon evoked a
photoparoxysmal response in 11 susceptible patients. After processing by the adaptive temporal
filter, the TV image no longer produced EEG changes in any of the patients. A recent study
(142) claimed computer-mediated reduction of the red-blue dynamic range could reduce seizure
risk, with a relatively small impact on appearance of the image.
Several investigators have recommended glasses or lens filters to take advantage of the
observation that bright light, perhaps especially bright red light (which can be attenuated by blue
glasses), is more likely to provoke PPIS (98, 109, 112, 143). Polarized and cross-polarized
glasses can reduce susceptibility to problems from some visual stimuli (144, 145). A recent study
(146), however, advocated a more sophisticated optical filter (special eyeglasses), combining
even attenuation over most of the visible spectrum, with an additional attenuation of long
wavelength light. These filters reduced photoparoxysmal responses from video screens in 90-
95% of cases.
Fisher , page 19
Most physicians prefer to avoid use of antiepileptic medications in photosensitive
patients, if possible. The first line of therapy is avoidance of video games, or modification of
exposure along the lines described above. Prevention with special screens, protective glasses,
warnings can be helpful (147). If conservative therapy fails, or if PPIS coexist with spontaneous
seizures, then several seizure medications have been advocated. Harding and Jeavons (3)
reviewed medications that had previously been tried, namely trimethadione, phenacemide,
amobarbital, phenobarbital, nitrazepam, diazepam, sodium valproate, phenytoin, ethosuximide.
Rimmer and colleagues (148) showed that a single dose of sodium valproate or the GABA
metabolism inhibitor, vigabatrin, could inhibit EEG photosensitive responses. Some authors
believed that sodium valproate was most efficacious (39). Harding et al. (149), in a comparative
study of photosensitive patients either treated with sodium valproate or not treated, demonstrated
that the drug was 78% effective in significantly reducing the photosensitive range and abolished
photosensitivity in 50% of treated patients. Moller and colleagues (150) studied beta-carbolines,
a drug active on the GABA inhibitory neurotransmitter system in six patients, but sample size
was too small for a conclusion. Sodium valproate was recommended for children with idiopathic
generalized epilepsy (68), but those with seizures only during video games perhaps do not
require anti-seizure medications. Benzodiazepines, particularly clonazepam (151) also have been
found to be effective. A young boy with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and pattern sensitive seizures
was responsive to bromocriptine 5 mg tid. (152). This is based upon the theory that
photosensitivity relates to transient decrease of dopamine in the cerebral cortex. Occasionally,
seizure medicines can aggravate photosensitive eplepsy, as was reported in a case of a child
given phenytoin (153). A small study supports the use of levetiracetam (154).
Recommendations to reduce risk of PPIS can be directed at manufacturers, consumers or
regulatory agencies. A group of international experts in photoconvulsive and pattern-sensitive
seizures met in London in September of 1993 under the auspices of the British Epilepsy
Research Foundation to form a consensus statement based upon currently available information
(155). They concluded that "there is no reasonable doubt that epileptic seizures may be
precipitated by playing interactive computerized 'video-games,' a term used to include not only
those games using an interlaced video monitor but also small hand-held liquid crystal displays
and arcade games ...". Contributing factors to a seizure included a photosensitive response to the
physical characteristics of a display screen, a photosensitive response to the visual contents of
the game independent of hardware, seizure precipitation by specific cognitive activities or
movements; seizure precipitation by nonspecific emotional factors; lowering of a seizure
threshold by fatigue or sleep deprivation; and coincidental occurrence of a spontaneous seizure
while playing a video game. The relative importance of these factors is uncertain, but
photosensitivity was considered to be paramount. Recommendations to the consumer included
the following: 1. While playing a video game, the screen should be less than 12 inches or the
patient should sit at least four times the diagonal screen diameter; 2. Play for greater than an hour
per session should be avoided and sleep should be maintained.; 3. People with a history or family
history of epilepsy or photosensitivity should have an EEG examination with photic stimulation
prior to playing video games; 4. People shown to be photosensitive and their caregivers should
be made aware of the potential risks of seizures from video games, and provide supervision
Fisher , page 20
In 1994, the UK Independent Television Commission drafted recommendations directed
at the broadcast and TV industry. Recommendations were updated in 1999 and again in 2001.
The guidance note recommends against flashing lights or regions of high luminance at three or
more cycles per second, and against high contrast bars, alternating in the range of 2-3 cycles per
visual degree subtended. Based upon the Pocket Monster incident, in which alternating colors
seemed to be at least as important as alternating luminance, recommendations have been
extended to avoidance of color changes at frequencies more than three per second. However,
truly isoluminant colors were not thought to be provocative for seizures. Following the Pocket
Monster incident, TV Tokyo adopted a similar set of guidelines, as did the Japanese National
Association of Commercial Broadcaster and NHK. Numbers of PPIS in Japan increased from
1996-1999, and then began to decrease, which was attributed to enactment of these guidelines
The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a group affiliated with the United
Nations, has issued guidelines. Further discussion of consensus opinions can be found in the
companion paper to this work (1).
Photosensitivity is marked by an abnormal EEG response to visual stimuli, typically light
flashes or light-dark striped patterns. All studies attempting to estimate the precise frequency of
photosensitivity in the general population are limited by subject selection bias. The studies that
do exist suggest a prevalence (number outstanding) of photosensitivity in the range of 0.3 – 3%.
Photosensitivity is higher in the young and female population. Most people with photosensitivity
will never have a seizure. The prevalence of photoconvulsive seizures in the general population
is approximately 1 per 10,000, and 1 per 4,000 individuals between 5 and 24 years of age.
Incidence (annual new onset) of PPIS is 1 per 91,000 in the overall population, but 1 per 17,500
in the age range 7-19. In the well-studied Pokemon incident in Japan, only 24% of children
having a seizure during the cartoon ever had a prior seizure. This implies that three of four
photosensitive individuals are unaware of their photosensitivity. People known to have epilepsy
have from a 2 to 14% chance of having seizures precipitated by light or pattern. About 2% of
people with epilepsy can have a seizure provoked by TV. The annual incidence of video game
seizures may be about 1 per 83,000 (1.2 per 100,000 in Quirk (51)), but is higher among 7-19
Mechanisms of photosensitivity are only dimly understood. Animal models are available,
but may not closely approximate the human disorder. Normal occipital cortex comprises brain
cells that respond to features of visual input: including light, edges, contrasts, orientation of
edges, and motion light-dark interfaces across the retina. Since each cortex appears to have
independent thresholds, the risk for a seizure induced by a visual stimulus is proportional to the
area of visual cortex activated by a stimulus within a cerebral hemisphere, with unilateral
hemisphere activation being almost as powerful an activation as is bilateral activation (80).
Stimuli in the central visual fields (10% of the full fields) are more potent for provoking seizures
than are stimuli of the same size delivered to the visual periphery, although peripheral visual
stimuli are just as provocative if cortical magnification is taken into account. Genetic factors
clearly play a role in photosensitivity, but neither the role nor the genes involved have been
Fisher , page 21
Although light stimulation can trigger a seizure in photosensitive individuals, there is no
evidence that it can create epilepsy, a condition marked by spontaneously recurrent seizures.
There are no data to point to neuronal injury or loss from typical photic or pattern-induced
seizures, although such damage might be speculated to exist in the rare cases of photoconvulsive
Intensity is one of the two most important characteristics of light stimuli able to provoke
seizures. Intensities of 0.2 – 1.5 million candlepower are in range to trigger PPIS. Frequency
(flash rate) is the second key variable in provocation of a photic- or pattern-induced seizure.
Frequencies in the range of 15-25 Hz are most provocative, but some individuals are sensitive to
single flashes or to frequencies as high as 65 Hz. Light-dark borders can induce pattern-sensitive
seizures, especially with a pattern oscillating in a direction perpendicular to the line of the
pattern, having 2-3 spatial cycles per degree subtended at the eye. Only rarely will flashes or
patterns occupying less than 25% of a TV or videogame screen provoke seizures. Patterns with
bright stripes no brighter than 50 candella per meter squared, or lasting for less than 0.5 seconds,
also rarely induce seizures. Color is a controversial factor. Some believe that red colors or
alternating red-blue oscillations can provoke seizures, but others think this unlikely if the
brightness of the colors is matched. Rare patients self-induce PPIS by blinking, head-nodding,
waving their fingers in front of their eyes, or intentionally looking at striped patterns.
Television-induced seizures result from combinations of sensitivity to flashing lights and
patterns due to the TV set flicker itself, and also to flash or patterns in the content of the
program. Due to differences in line current frequencies in Europe versus the US and Japan, TV
flicker is more apparent in Europe, and closer to the frequencies likely to provoke seizures.
However, NTSC TV (the technical protocol used in the US) does not provide protection against
provocative program material. Certain videogames also present flash and patterns of a type able
to induce seizures in photosensitive players or observers. Identifying which factors are relevant
for increasing risk is more difficult for videogames than for broadcast or recorded TV since
games can be played in so many different ways. Human factors, such as fatigue, excitement,
sleep deprivation, monocular versus binocular vision, may all play a roles in PPIS, but especially
in actively played games. Video games pose a minor risk for people with no known
photosensitivity. Surveys suggest that the public, including patients with seizures not provoked
by light, overestimate the risk for seizures provoked by video games.
Many authors have published recommendations about PPIS directed at patients,
physicians, device or software manufacturers, and governmental agencies. No final set of
recommendations yet exists, but European and Japanese groups have compiled extensive
experience. International organizations, including the International Telecommunications Union
(affiliated with the UN) and the International Standards Organization, are considering
international guidelines. In the latter case the guidelines would apply not only to TV, broadcast
and videogames, but to a broad range of visual stimuli. The guidelines for industry in the UK and
Japan emphasize the value of limiting bright flashes at frequencies higher than three per second.
Light-dark stationary, oscillating or reversing patterns should not have more than five stripes,
unless they are restricted to less than 25% of the screen or are less than 50 cd/m2 in brightness.
People with epilepsy or known photosensitivity have been advised to sit more than 2
meters from a screen, to employ good ambient lighting to reduce contrast, to avoid looking at
rapidly flashing lights or alternating geometric patterns, to play video games for less than an hour
at a time, to avoid sleep deprivation, and to cease play at onset of unusual visual symptoms,
Fisher , page 22
jerking or blackouts. Closing one eye or looking away from the image is of more benefit than is
closing both eyes.
The Photosensitivity Task Force of the Epilepsy Foundation of America believes that a
seizure from visual stimulation represents a significant public health problem. No known method
can eliminate all risk for a visually-induced seizure in a highly susceptible person. But
accumulation of knowledge about photosensitivity is now at a level sufficient to develop
educational programs and procedures in the US that substantially will reduce the risk for this
type of seizure.
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Fisher , page 34
Dr. Erba chaired the committee that organized the consensus conference. The Consensus
Conference was supported by the Epilepsy Foundation and the Center for Disease Control. Dr.
Fisher is supported by the Maslah Saul MD Chair, James and Carrie Anderson Fund for Epilepsy
Research and the Susan Horngren Fund. In the past, Dr. Fisher testified on behalf of Nintendo,
but has no current relationship. Dr. Harding has a financial relationship with Cambridge
Research Systems (Rochester, Kent, England), a company that manufactures a photic screening
system for broadcast material, and also has served as an expert witness in cases related to photic-
induced seizures. Dr. Harding has holdings in Visual Diagnostics Centre Ltd., a company that
investigates visual side effects from medications in clinical trials. Dr. Wilkins received an award
to inventors from the British MRC, based on royalties derived from sales of the Intuitive
Colorimeter, used in the UK to obtain precision tints. We would like to acknowledge the
assistance of Dr. Ruben Montes for his organization of pertinent literature for a first draft of the
article. Dr. Solomon Moshe kindly served as guest editor for this paper and solicited the
Fisher , page 35
Figure 1. Histogram depicting the percentage of known photosensitive subjects who show EEG
photosensitive responses at particular flash frequencies. Adapted from Harding and Harding,