Treatment of infantile spasms

The optimum treatment for infantile spasms has yet to be proven with confidence, in part because of the different aims of existing studies. However, some useful conclusions can be drawn from current evidence.

Infantile spasms is a rare seizure disorder commonly associated with severe learning difficulties. Many different treatments are currently used worldwide in the treatment of this disorder, and many more have been tried in the past, often with little success. Not all treatments are licensed for use in all countries. Most treatments are associated with significant adverse effects. Additional research is needed to explore the long-term benefits of different therapies for seizure control and for neurodevelopment. Two studies have shown that a placebo is not as good as an active treatment in resolving the spasms. The strongest evidence suggests that hormonal treatment (prednisolone or tetracosactide depot) leads to resolution of spasms faster and in more infants than does vigabatrin. Responses without subsequent relapse may be no different, but one study suggested that hormonal treatment (prednisolone or tetracosactide) might improve long-term neurodevelopmental outcomes in infants and young children for whom no underlying cause for their infantile spasms has been identified. This makes hormonal treatment more attractive, at least for this group of infants. More information and further research are needed to compare currently available therapies.

Authors' conclusions: 

To date, few well-designed RCTs have considered the treatment of infantile spasms, and the numbers of patients enrolled have been small. In the majority, methodology has been poor, hence it is not clear which treatment is optimal in the treatment of this epilepsy syndrome. Hormonal treatment resolves spasms in more infants than vigabatrin, but this may or may not translate into better long-term outcomes. If prednisolone or vigabatrin is used, high dosage is recommended. Vigabatrin may be the treatment of choice in tuberous sclerosis. Resolution of the EEG features may be important, but this has not been proven. Further research using large studies with robust methodology is required.

Read the full abstract...

Infantile spasms (West's Syndrome) is a syndrome that includes a peculiar type of epileptic seizure—the spasms—and an electroencephalographic (EEG) abnormality often called hypsarrhythmia. Psychomotor retardation is frequently found at follow-up. Approximately two-thirds of affected infants will have a detectable underlying neurological abnormality, but still little is known about the pathophysiological basis for infantile spasms, and treatment remains problematic.


To compare the effects of single pharmaceutical therapies used to treat infantile spasms in terms of control of the spasms, resolution of the EEG, relapse rates, psychomotor development, subsequent epilepsy, side effects, and mortality.

Search strategy: 

To identify published data, we searched the Cochrane Epilepsy Group Specialised Register (October 2012), CENTRAL (The Cochrane Library 2012, Issue 9), MEDLINE (1946 to September Week 4, 2012), EMBASE (1980 to March 2003), and the reference lists of all retrieved articles.
To identify unpublished data, we searched the ISRCTN Register (, corresponded with colleagues and drug companies, and made requests at international conferences.

Selection criteria: 

All randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of the administration of drug therapy to patients with infantile spasms.

Data collection and analysis: 

Data collection from all relevant publications was independently undertaken by three review authors (before 2010) or by two review authors using a standard proforma. Analysis included assessment of study quality and a search for sources of heterogeneity.

Main results: 

We found 16 small RCTs (fewer than 100 patients enrolled) and 2 larger RCTs (more than 100 patients enrolled). These 18 studies looked at a total of 916 patients treated with a total of 12 different pharmaceutical agents. Overall methodology of the studies was poor, in part because of ethical dilemmas such as giving placebo injections to children. Two studies showed that placebo was not as good as active treatment in resolving the spasms. The strongest evidence suggested that hormonal treatment (prednisolone or tetracosactide depot) leads to resolution of spasms faster and in more infants than does vigabatrin. Responses without subsequent relapse may be no different. The same study suggests that hormonal treatments might improve the long-term developmental outcome compared with vigabatrin in infants not found to have an underlying cause for their infantile spasms.