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Kurt Eichenwald plans to file charges against the troll. We asked a neurologist to explain how a tweet could trigger a surge of electrical activity in the brain.

Amanda Gardner
December 20, 2016

There's no question certain tweets can throw you for a loop. But can a tweet actually cause a seizure?

Newsweek senior writer Kurt Eichenwald—who has publicly revealed that he has epilepsy—says a troll sent him a malicious tweet meant to do exactly that, and it worked.

After Eichenwald appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight last Thursday, he wrote a series of tweets referencing his acrimonious interview with the Fox News anchor. Apparently the seizure occurred later that night: Newsweek reports that another user sent Eichenwald an image of a strobe light with the message, "You deserve a seizure for your postings." 

On Friday, Eichenwald announced that he would be taking a break from the social media platform: "I will be spending that time with my lawyers &  law enforcement going after 1 of u..." 

"This not going to happen again," he wrote in another tweet. "My wife is terrified. I am ... disgusted."

According to Newsweek, Eichenwald's lawyer has filed a criminal assault complaint with the Dallas Police Department, and plans to file a similar complaint in the jurisdiction of the user once that person is identified.

RELATED: 6 Things That Can Trigger a Seizure Even If You Don't Have Epilepsy

So how could a tweet trigger an epileptic seizure? We asked Derek Chong, MD, director of the epilepsy program and vice chair of neurology at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, to explain: "There are some people who are very susceptible to strobes and flashing lights. If you open the message and it automatically plays and you’re really susceptible to it, you could potentially have a seizure." (Dr. Chong is not familiar with the specifics of Eichenwald's experience.)

This would fall into the category of photosensitive epilepsy, one of several reflex epilepsies—epiliepsies where an outside stimulus brings on seizures, Dr. Chong explains. The stimulus can be something in the environment, like a certain smell or noise, or can involve more complex behaviors such as reading, bathing, eating, doing math, or even thinking about certain topics. (Sometimes, a specific type of music can trigger seizures—one woman on Long Island had seizures whenever she heard Sean Hall on the radio, says Dr. Chong.) Reflex epilepsies account for about 5% of all cases of epilepsy; photosensitive epilepsy comprises 3% of total cases. Flashing lights are "a well-known trigger," says Dr. Chong. 

RELATED: 9 Foods That May Help Save Your Memory

Other factors besides an outside stimulus can trigger a seizure. If Eichenwald had already had a stressful day, for instance, and the level of excitability in his brain was already pushed very high, then "this could have been the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Dr. Chong explains. 

Fortunately, Eichenwald seems to be okay. Earlier today, he reiterated his outrage on Twitter, and tried to put the seriousness of the attack in context: "Folks, if a blind man says things you don't like politically, it is not okay to direct him toward the edge of a cliff. Find some humanity."

The writer's metaphor is no exaggeration. Each year, some 50,000 people in the United States die as a result of seizures. In general, people with seizures have up to triple the risk of dying than someone without.