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Cameron Boyce: Explaining ‘Sudden Unexplained Death’

July 11, 2019

Although a seizure stemming from his epilepsy is believed to have caused the recent death of actor Cameron Boyce, it is an extremely rare side effect of the disease, according to Dr. Gabriel Martz, director of The Epilepsy Center at Ayer Neuroscience Institute.

Cameron Boyce

Cameron Boyce

Epileptic seizures – which occur when the electrical networks in the brain are “hijacked by the abnormal electrical activity of the seizure,” Dr. Martz said – cause death in less than 1 percent of people with the disease.

“It is more common in people with epilepsy who have frequent seizures, whose medicines do not fully control their seizures, who have seizures during their sleep and who have big convulsive seizures as opposed to more subtle seizures that do not include shaking of limbs or body,” he said, adding that dying from a seizure is called Sudden Unexplained Death in Epilepsy (SUDEP).

Boyce, a 20-year-old Disney star, died in his sleep on Saturday. He was being treated for epilepsy, according to a family representative.

“Epilepsy causes misfires in the brain, like when lightning causes electrical malfunction in a building,” Dr. Martz said.

While that seems like an extreme physical reaction, he said it’s possible to not wake from sleep when one happens.

“Seizures cause excessive activation in the parts of the brain where they occur,” he said. “If this includes parts that regulate breathing, heart rate or blood pressure, the abnormal overdrive can cause somebody to stop breathing or have very low blood pressure or heart rate, which can cause them to not wake up or to die.

“The ways in which this happens are very poorly understood and there are large-scale research projects actively being done in multiple medical centers across the United States.”

He recommended anyone who experiences a seizure to see a specialist to get it under control and help avoid tragedy.

“If you have seizures and your medications aren’t working, seek a more specialized level of care,” he said.

For more information on epilepsy care at The Epilepsy Center at Hartford HealthCare, click here.