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Pa. art exhibit with strobe lights closed after seizures reported

An art installation in Pittsburgh was shut down after three people reportedly had seizures while visiting the exhibit.

CBS station KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pa. reported that "Zee" by Kurt Hentschalger, which features strobe lights, was indefinitely closed after the latest incident on Friday.

EMS units told KDKA said they were called to the exhibit three times over the weekend due to patrons having seizures. Two people had to be taken to the hospital, and one person was treated on scene.

A seizure is a collection of symptoms that occur when there is an abnormal surge of electrical activity in the brain. It can cause uncontrolled movements and sensory experiences.

Dr. Lara Jehi, a neurologist with the Epilepsy Center at the Cleveland Clinic, told that seizures happen to about 10 percent of the population at least once in their lives.

"The easiest way to think of it is if you think of the brain as a machine," she said. "All the wiring needs be perfect and the parts need to be working. If not, it could have a short circuit and an electrical burst."

The symptoms of a seizure can vary depending on the spot in the brain that is overwhelmed by the electrical activity, explained Jehi, who did not treat any of the Pittsburgh cases.

Flashing lights are a common trigger of people who have a seizure that begins in the occipital lobe, or visual processing center of the brain. People with these seizures may see abnormal lights and colors. Others may experience the electrical activity taking over their whole brain, which affects their balance and motor control. This is typically what happens when people are seen convulsing.

Jehi added that certain patterns like black and white stripes or a light that is shining at a specific frequency can also lead to a seizure. Teenagers are also more likely to have seizures due to flashing lights because of a condition called juvenile myclonic epilepsy.

"Whenever they go out dancing and they haven't had much sleep and they may have been drinking in a dark nightclub with flashing lights, whenever they get on the dance floor with flashing lights -- they have a seizure," Jehi explained.

"Zee" had been featured in other galleries in Pittsburgh, and a spokesperson for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust admitted to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that some visitors had previously experienced seizures at those locations.

Before entering the art exhibit, patrons were required to sign a waver, notifying them that they would be exposed to "intense stroboscopic light in combination with thick artificial fog, resulting in a loss of spatial orientation." It also warned that people who had a personal or family history of photosensitive epilepsy, breathing problems, heart problems, migraines, claustrophobia or anxiety should not enter the exhibit.

Firefighters measured the air quality and determined it was not dangerous, District EMS Chief Paul Sabol told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

If you are prone to occipital lobe seizures, Jehi suggests trying to avoid the source that triggers your problem. Sitting further away from the TV and watching the TV in a well-lit room can also help. Covering one of the eyes with a hand can also stop seizures, since typically people need to be looking at the trigger with both eyes in order to cause the synchronization in the brain that leads to an episode. Seizure medication may be necessary to prevent episodes from happening.

Jehi added that if you are around someone who has a seizure, put a pillow or jacket underneath their heads and turn them on their sides so they don't choke. Do not put anything in their mouth, because they may bite down and break the object, leading to choking. The seizure should stop within one or two minutes, but if it doesn't, call 911 immediately.

The installation will remain closed until changes are made, and no date has been set for a re-opening.

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