The ketone bodies are possibly anticonvulsant; in animal models, acetoacetate and acetone protect against seizures. The ketogenic diet results in adaptive changes to brain energy metabolism that increase the energy reserves; ketone bodies are a more efficient fuel than glucose, and the number of mitochondria is increased. This may help the neurons to remain stable in the face of increased energy demand during a seizure, and may confer a neuroprotective effect.
A short-lived increase in seizure frequency may occur during illness or if ketone levels fluctuate. The diet may be modified if seizure frequency remains high, or the child is losing weight. Loss of seizure-control may come from unexpected sources. Even "sugar-free" food can contain carbohydrates such as maltodextrin, sorbitol, starch, and fructose. The sorbitol content of suntan lotion and other skincare products may be high enough for some to be absorbed through the skin and thus negate ketosis.
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When in the hospital, glucose levels are checked several times daily and the patient is monitored for signs of symptomatic ketosis (which can be treated with a small quantity of orange juice). Lack of energy and lethargy are common, but disappear within two weeks. The parents attend classes over the first three full days, which cover nutrition, managing the diet, preparing meals, avoiding sugar, and handling illness. The level of parental education and commitment required is higher than with medication.
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The ketogenic diet achieved national media exposure in the US in October 1994, when NBC's Dateline television programme reported the case of Charlie Abrahams, son of Hollywood producer Jim Abrahams. The two-year-old suffered from epilepsy that had remained uncontrolled by mainstream and alternative therapies. Abrahams discovered a reference to the ketogenic diet in an epilepsy guide for parents and brought Charlie to John M. Freeman at Johns Hopkins Hospital, which had continued to offer the therapy. Under the diet, Charlie's epilepsy was rapidly controlled and his developmental progress resumed. This inspired Abrahams to create the Charlie Foundation to promote the diet and fund research. A multicentre prospective study began in 1994, the results were presented to the American Epilepsy Society in 1996 and were published in 1998. There followed an explosion of scientific interest in the diet. In 1997, Abrahams produced a TV movie, ...First Do No Harm, starring Meryl Streep, in which a young boy's intractable epilepsy is successfully treated by the ketogenic diet.
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The ketogenic diet is usually initiated in combination with the patient's existing anticonvulsant regimen, though patients may be weaned off anticonvulsants if the diet is successful. Some evidence of synergistic benefits is seen when the diet is combined with the vagus nerve stimulator or with the drug zonisamide, and that the diet may be less successful in children receiving phenobarbital.