Mahjong player admits swirling tiles trigger epileptic fits

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 August, 2007, 12:00am

Even before the Hong Kong Medical Journal published a report on 'mahjong epilepsy' last week, one avid player had noticed changes in her body whenever she played.

'My heartbeat accelerated drastically when I played the game,' said the woman, who would identify herself as Ms Li, 46.

'I was too concentrated on the tiles. I felt particularly nervous whenever I had chance to win, or while working on a hand with a high score or noticing my opponents working on such hands.'

She began suffering from epilepsy at age three, she said, but noticed she experienced more attacks when playing mahjong.

'My brain would suddenly blank out. My hands would move the tiles randomly, out of my control. My eyes would roll upwards, though I did not always fall down.'

Ms Li used to play for three hours at a time with family members, but now played far less. But she cannot give up the game completely. Now she tries to exercise self-discipline because she believes the tiles swirling on the table top could easily trigger epileptic fits.

Queen Mary Hospital doctors published the report documenting the first three known cases of 'mahjong epilepsy' in previously healthy men.

The seizures were triggered while the men, aged 39, 42 and 76, were playing mahjong. The attacks stopped after the men stopped playing or watching. Twenty such cases have been reported in Taiwan and 40 on the mainland.

Windsor Mak Wai-wo, lead author of the report, said epilepsy occurred when 'a sufficient amount of nerve cells in the brain is activated at the same time, reaching a critical trigger mass'.

People who were susceptible had problems with a mechanism that avoided abnormal activation of the cells that most people had, he said.

'When playing, we activate a lot of nerve cells for thinking, planning strategy and making a lot of decisions, and it is also very exciting.'

The treatment used for other epileptic seizures was not effective for treating mahjong epilepsy and had side effects, he said, 'so for this particular syndrome, the most natural way is to avoid playing mahjong'.

Even so: 'Millions of people play mahjong and the number of reported cases of mahjong epilepsy is less than 100.'