The 25-Year-Old With Sudoku-Induced Seizures

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Photo: Gregor Schuster/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

A 25-year-old student was on a skiing vacation when just about the worst thing that can happen on a skiing vacation happened: an avalanche. The young man was buried under the snow, and his brain was without oxygen for 15 full minutes, reports science writer Mo Costandi for The Guardian. He survived, but the ordeal left its mark, causing him difficulties when he tried to walk or talk. 

And then, a few weeks after the accident, something weirder happened: Every time he tried to pass the time with a nice game of sudoku, he had a seizure. A case report based on the student’s experience was published online on Monday in the journal JAMA Neurology

The Problem: When — and only when — the man played sudoku, filling out the little puzzle with his right hand, his left arm would shake around involuntarily. But when he stopped the sudoku, the seizure stopped, too. He could read and solve math problems without a problem, but when he tried a task somewhat similar to sudoku — putting a set of numbers in order from smallest to largest — the seizures started again. 

The Diagnosis: His doctors at the University of Munich determined that he had reflex epilepsy, seizures that are caused by some kind of external stimulus. You’ve heard of this kind of epilepsy — it’s a version of the kind triggered by flashing bright lights, like that episode of Pokemon that gave hundreds of Japanese children seizures in the ‘90s. As for our skiing student, he gave up the sudoku, and his seizures went away, too. What a puzzling medical case (sorry).