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The human electroencephalogram (EEG) was discovered by the German psychiatrist, Hans Berger, in 1929. Its potential applications in epilepsy rapidly became clear, when Gibbs and colleagues in Boston demonstrated 3 per second spike wave discharge in what was then termed petit mal epilepsy. EEG continues to play a central role in diagnosis and management of patients with seizure disorders—in conjunction with the now remarkable variety of other diagnostic techniques developed over the last 30 or so years—because it is a convenient and relatively inexpensive way to demonstrate the physiological manifestations of abnormal cortical excitability that underlie epilepsy.
However, the EEG has a number of limitations. Electrical activity recorded by electrodes placed on the scalp or surface of the brain mostly reflects summation of excitatory and inhibitory postsynaptic potentials in apical dendrites of pyramidal neurons in the more superficial layers of the cortex. Quite large areas of cortex—in the order of a few square centimetres—have to be activated synchronously to generate enough potential for changes to be registered at electrodes placed on the scalp. Propagation of electrical activity along physiological pathways or through volume conduction in extracellular spaces may give a misleading impression as to location of the source of the electrical activity. Cortical generators of the many normal and abnormal cortical activities recorded in the EEG are still largely unknown. Spatial sampling in routine scalp EEG is incomplete, as significant amounts of cortex, particularly in basal and mesial areas of the hemispheres, are not covered by standard electrode placement. Temporal sampling is also limited, and the relatively short duration of routine interictal EEG recording is one reason why patients with epilepsy may not show interictal epileptiform discharge (IED) in the first EEG study.
If inappropriate questions are asked of the EEG, diagnostic errors will occur, and there will be poor …