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Lights, Camera, Action: Disney Warns of Seizure Risks in New Star Wars Film

The world is buzzing about the release of the latest film in the Star Wars saga “The Rise of Skywalker” set to hit the big screen tonight. Earlier this month, Disney released a statement with the Epilepsy Foundation warning viewers that certain scenes in the film with flashing lights could trigger seizures. With over 3 million people in the U.S. diagnosed with epilepsy, this risk could have far reaching implications. But who is at risk for seizures triggered by flashing lights and what steps can be taken to avoid a seizure while watching the movie?

What is photosensitivity?

Photosensitivity is a phenomenon that occurs in approximately 3% of people with epilepsy, so this risk impacts a small percentage of people with epilepsy overall. For those with photosensitivity, exposure to certain patterns and frequencies of flashing light over a period of time may induce a seizure. For many, the trigger can be very specific and vary from person to person – certain colors or wavelengths of light, particular frequencies (often between 5-30 flashes per second), and specific patterns could be triggers.

Movies with flashing lights aren’t the only potential photic triggers in our environment. Other potential examples include:

  • Strobe lights used at dances or when part of fire alarms
  • Sunlight flickering off water, shining through Venetian blinds or through roadside trees
  • Lights hanging down through bridges or tunnels
  • Television or computer screens with rolling images

How do you know if you are photosensitive?

The easiest way to know if you are at risk for photosensitivity is through electroencephalogram (EEG) results. Often, as part of the EEG exam, patients are exposed to strobe lights at various frequencies during the study. The neurologist reviews the EEG to see if there were changes to the brainwave pattern during the lights suggesting a higher risk of seizures. This is called a photoparoxysmal response (see the image to the right). If that pattern is present, sometimes the technicians will then repeat the test using colored filters over the strobe light to see if they can make the trigger disappear. If they can, some people can wear polarized colored glasses to filter out the triggering light and avoid the photic response.

Certain epilepsy syndromes are known to have a higher association with photosensitivity. These include the idiopathic generalized epilepsies and some named syndromes below.

What steps can you take to avoid photic-induced seizures?

Disney did not indicate which scenes in the film may contain potential photic triggers, so the viewer must remain aware of potential triggers. There are multiple easy steps people can take to avoid photic triggers and still enjoy the film and other environments where photic triggers may be present.

  • Close one or both eyes and look away during scenes with sustained flashing lights.
  • If you are playing a video game or watching TV/movie and you start to get jerks in your arms/legs, turn away from the screen immediately.
  • Use computer screens with glare guards.
  • Turn off the autoplay features on social media (videos can automatically play on social media platforms that have strobe effects and may trigger seizures) – not sure if we want to comment on the court case Monday of Kurt Eichenwald who -was the victim of a strobe attack.
  • Turn down the brightness of TV/computer screens.

While photosensitivity can be a seizure trigger for some people with epilepsy, it should not be a deterrent from enjoying these activities. Being aware of the potential for photic triggers and taking steps to avoid sustained exposure can help prevent seizures while still enjoying the event.

So go forth, grab a popcorn, and enjoy the movie – and may the Force be with you!

Get to Know M. Scott Perry, M.D.

Dr. Perry is a bit of a Jedi himself. He joined the Neurosciences Program of Cook Children's in 2009 as a pediatricepileptologist, then served as the Medical Director of the Epilepsy Monitoring Unit and Tuberous Sclerosis Complex clinic before assuming the role of Medical Director of Neurology in 2016.

His clinical and research interests focus on the treatment of childhood onset epilepsy, specifically those patients with uncontrolled epilepsy or those for which the cause has not been determined. Click here to learn more about the Jane and John Justin Neurosciences Center.

Dr. Perry was recently a guest on the "Seizing Life" podcast. Listen to his episode that was recorded during Epilepsy Awareness Day last month. 

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