While epilepsy studies rarely examine brainstem, we sought to examine the hypothesis that temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) leads to subcortical arousal center dysfunction, contributing to neocortical connectivity and neurocognitive disturbances.
In this case-control study of 26 adult patients with TLE and 26 controls, we used MRI to measure structural and functional connectivity of the cuneiform/subcuneiform nuclei (CSC), pedunculopontine nucleus, and ventral tegmental area. Ascending reticular activating system connectivity patterns were related to neuropsychological and disease measures.
Compared to controls, patients with TLE demonstrated reductions in ascending reticular activating system structural and functional connectivity, most prominently to neocortical regions (p < 0.05, unpaired t tests, corrected). While reduced CSC structural connectivity was related to impaired performance IQ and visuospatial memory, diminished CSC functional connectivity was associated with impaired verbal IQ and language abilities (p < 0.05, Spearman , t tests). Finally, CSC structural connectivity decreases were quantitatively associated with consciousness-impairing seizure frequency (p < 0.05, Spearman ) and the presence of generalized seizures (p < 0.05, unpaired t test), suggesting a relationship to disease severity.
Connectivity perturbations in brainstem arousal centers are present in TLE and may contribute to neurocognitive problems. These studies demonstrate the underappreciated role of brainstem networks in epilepsy and may lead to novel neuromodulation targets to treat or prevent deleterious brain network effects of seizures in TLE.