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Spotlight: Ilo Leppik, MD, reflects on four decades of epilepsy care

Ilo Leppik, MD, was inspired to become an epileptologist after he met with epilepsy patients and learned how the condition affected their lives.
Epileptologist Ilo Leppik, MD, has more than four decades of experience caring for patients with epilepsy. During his career, Leppik has published more than 240 peer-reviewed research articles on epilepsy and has co-authored numerous books on the subject.

Four decades ago, Ilo Leppik, MD, joined a group of doctors who sought not just to provide better medical care for epilepsy patients—but to help them overcome prejudice to live normal, productive lives.

It’s a mission he still carries on today as an epileptologist in the University of Minnesota Health MINCEP Epilepsy Care program. During his career, Leppik has published more than 240 peer-reviewed research articles on epilepsy and has co-authored numerous books on the subject. He is the past president of the Epilepsy Foundation of America, among other leadership roles.

We asked Leppik to describe his passion for epilepsy care and research, and tell us more about MINCEP’s comprehensive approach to treatment.

You’ve been with MINCEP, the first comprehensive epilepsy treatment center in the nation, for more than four decades. Tell us: What are the founding principles of the program? What continues to differentiate it in the field?

I joined the federally funded Comprehensive Epilepsy Program (CEP) in 1976 because it sought to develop and provide medical and surgical treatment for seizures and address the social and psychological needs of persons with epilepsy. The program participants believed simply treating epilepsy as a medical condition was not enough to fully integrate people with epilepsy into society. CEP eventually morphed into MINCEP, and merged with University of Minnesota Health in 2013.

What drove you to become an epileptologist, and why are you passionate about epilepsy care?

I became interested in epilepsy during the first year of my neurology residency. Our chairman was an epilepsy specialist and he inspired me to pursue this field. I began to meet people with epilepsy and learned how their lives could be negatively impacted by prejudice from others, even though their seizures could be controlled—and between seizures they were completely normal. We can help make significant improvements in the lives and careers of people with epilepsy by finding appropriate treatments for the disease, which is why I’m passionate about what I do.

How does your dual role as an epileptologist and a faculty member of the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy benefit your patients?

In my role as an epileptologist, I see first-hand how different medications are working to reduce seizures and can monitor the side effects they produce. By serving in the University of Minnesota’s College of Pharmacy, I can collaborate with the researchers who study patient treatment outcomes and work to develop new drugs. I also have access to new research programs and studies that might benefit my patients.

Learn more about our MINCEP Epilepsy Care services.

What promising developments are on the horizon for epilepsy care?

There are many promising treatments. My current research focus is on cannabis. We want to better understand its usefulness as a treatment for epilepsy. Working with colleagues at the College of Pharmacy, we are pursuing studies on cannabis absorption rates into the bloodstream. We are also developing new therapies—including deep brain stimulation—to better regulate the abnormal electrical activity of the brain.

Describe one of your favorite memories from your work as a physician.

I have many, but my work with Jackie Pflug stands out. Jackie was the victim of an airplane hijacking in Malta in 1985. She was shot in the head and left for dead on the runway. Fortunately she survived, but developed epilepsy and severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With the appropriate medicine, we were able to control her seizures and with counseling, she overcame her PTSD. After healing, she became a motivational speaker and traveled widely to deliver her message of hope and recovery. She also published a book that I have given to many of my patients. She married, raised a family and is now leading a very happy and productive life.

Editor's Note: The details of Jackie Pflug's case were shared with her permission. The details of her story are recounted in her memoir, "Miles to Go Before I Sleep: A Survivor's Story of Life After a Terrorist Hijacking."