Understanding the Female Brain

Northwestern Medicine
Neurosciences February 18, 2013
First diagnosed with epilepsy when she was 17 years old, Ann O’Shea experienced one to two seizures a year before getting her condition under control with a medication called lamotrigine. When she decided to go on birth control at age 22, very little was explained to her about the impact it could have on her epilepsy medication. Within two months, O’Shea had three seizures – far more than what she had experienced in the past. Recognizing that there may be a connection, O’Shea turned to the Internet for research and found information about how birth control pills could decrease the efficacy the medication she was taking to control seizures. Concerned that this had not been caught by her doctors, she decided it was time to find a specialist who would not only care for her epilepsy, but could also help her plan for the future. That’s how she found the Northwestern Medicine Women’s Neurology Center, a program dedicated to better serving women at all stages of life and to advancing research in neurological conditions facing women.

Medical staff and patients from Women’s Neurology Center“Neurological conditions, such as epilepsy, can be more challenging to treat in women because of hormones and reproductive issues,” said Elizabeth E. Gerard, MD, neurologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “More research is needed to understand how neurological conditions affect women compared to men so that we can more effectively treat our female patients.”

While the Women’s Neurology Center is one of only a small number of women-focused neurology programs in the country, recent research indicates that gender plays a significant role in neurological conditions:

  • Twenty percent of women suffer from migraines
  • Sleep disorders in women are often overlooked by primary care physicians
  • Hormones affect seizure frequency in 30 percent of women with epilepsy
  • Women are three times more likely than men to be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis
  • Medications used to treat neurological disorders may have significant impact on pregnancy and contraception effectiveness
  • Stroke mortality is higher in women, although 30 percent of women are unaware of their stroke risk factors
The center offers patients treatment from sub-specialist neurologists with expertise in epilepsy, stroke, multiple sclerosis, migraine, headaches, dizziness, and sleep disorders. With an emphasis on incorporating an integrated medicine approach to patient care versus one based solely on pharmacology, the center also addresses reproductive health and issues related to women’s hormones. Along with patient care, research will be a strong component of the Women’s Neurology Center.