Pulmonary and cardiac pathology in sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP)

Fábio A. Nascimento, Zian H. Tseng, Cristian Palmiere, Joseph J. Maleszewski, Takayuki Shiomi, Aileen McCrillis, Orrin Devinsky

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

53 Scopus citations


Objective To review studies on structural pulmonary and cardiac changes in SUDEP cases as well as studies showing pulmonary or cardiac structural changes in living epilepsy patients. Methods We conducted electronic literature searches using the PubMed database for articles published in English, regardless of publication year, that included data on cardiac and/or pulmonary structural abnormalities in SUDEP cases or in living epilepsy patients during the postictal period. Results Fourteen postmortem studies reported pulmonary findings in SUDEP cases. Two focused mainly on assessing lung weights in SUDEP cases versus controls; no group difference were found. The other 12 reported descriptive autopsy findings. Among all SUDEP cases with available descriptive postmortem pulmonary examination, 72% had pulmonary changes, most often pulmonary edema/congestion, and, less frequently, intraalveolar hemorrhage. Eleven studies reported on cardiac pathology in SUDEP. Cardiac abnormalities were found in approximately one-fourth of cases. The most common findings were myocyte hypertrophy and myocardial fibrosis of various degrees. Among living epilepsy patients, postictal pulmonary pathology was the most commonly reported pulmonary abnormality and the most common postictal cardiac abnormality was transient left ventricular dysfunction – Takotsubo or neurogenic stunned myocardium. Significance Cardiac and pulmonary pathological abnormalities are frequent among SUDEP cases, most commonly pulmonary edema/congestion and focal interstitial myocardial fibrosis. Most findings are not quantified, with subjective elements and undefined interobserver reliability, and lack of controls such as matched epilepsy patients who died from other causes. Further, studies have not systematically evaluated potential confounding factors, including postmortem interval to autopsy, paramedic resuscitation and IV fluids administration, underlying heart/lung disease, and risk factors for cardiac or pulmonary disease. Prospective studies with controls are needed to define the heart and lung changes in SUDEP and understand their potential relationship to mechanisms of death in SUDEP.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)119-125
Number of pages7
JournalEpilepsy and Behavior
StatePublished - Aug 2017


  • Autopsy
  • Epilepsy
  • Forensic pathology


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