The oldest record of epilepsy

November 14, 2001

Ezekiel's visions may owe as much to disease as to divine inspiration

THE Bible may contain the oldest recorded case of temporal lobe epilepsy. Ezekiel, the prophet whose visions are recorded in a book of the Old Testament, apparently had all the classic signs of the condition.

Earlier this year Eric Altschuler, a neuroscientist at the University of California at San Diego, claimed that the Biblical strongman Samson may have been the earliest known sufferer of antisocial personality disorder (New Scientist, 17 February, p 19). Now he says that records in the Bible reveal that Ezekiel, who lived about 2600 years ago, showed extreme classic symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy.

People with the disease experience partial seizures, often accompanied by a dreamy feeling that things are not quite as they should be. Patients are often misdiagnosed with psychiatric problems. Neurologically, Ezekiel displayed some obvious signs of epilepsy, such as frequent fainting spells and episodes of not being able to speak.

The Biblical figure, who chronicled the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC, exhibited other peculiarities associated with the disease. For instance, he wrote compulsively, a trait known as hypergraphia. Altschuler points out that the Book of Ezekiel is the fourth longest in the Bible-only slightly shorter than Genesis. "It's impenetrable," he says. "He goes on and on."

Ezekiel was also extremely religious, another characteristic associated with this form of epilepsy. While many Biblical figures are pious, none was as aggressively religious as Ezekiel, says Altschuler. Other signs of epilepsy can include aggression, delusions and pedantic speech-and the man had them all, Altschuler this week told a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego.

Understanding that Ezekiel may have suffered from epilepsy helps put his writings into perspective, says Altschuler. "Once you appreciate that, you can see where he's coming from." It also serves as further evidence that this disease is genetic in origin. "If there were no old cases," he says, "we'd have to ask if there was something wrong in our environment."
-end-
Author: Alison Motluk

New Scientist issue: 17th November 2001

PLEASE MENTION NEW SCIENTIST AS THE SOURCE OF THIS STORY AND, IF PUBLISHING ONLINE, PLEASE CARRY A HYPERLINK TO: http://www.newscientist.com

New Scientist

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