Surgery Ends Tot's Laughing Seizures

NEW HYDE PARK, N.Y.— Doctors probed deep into the center of a 3-year-old girl's brain to save her from her own laughter.

Anastasia Lagalla's uncontrollable laughter and seizures were part of an extremely rare condition that could have led to mental retardation, but doctors announced Thursday that surgery to remove a tumor causing the problem had been successful.

“It's like I have my little girl back,'' said Ana's mom, Jennifer Anderson of Ridge, N.Y., who beamed as she told reporters Thursday of her daughter's recovery. “She's doing amazing.''

The laughing seizures began in May 2006, Anderson said, with only a few episodes a day. At first, Anderson and her husband, Peter Lagalla, agreed with the assessment of doctors that the tantrum-like symptoms were merely “terrible twos'' behavior, but the frequency of the seizures grew to an alarming rate.

“You could tell by the look that something isn't right,'' said Anderson, who compared her daughter's behavior to Batman's arch-nemesis.

“It was almost as if she started to grind her teeth and then it was kind of a smile almost like the Joker — I don't know how else to describe it,'' Anderson said.

Earlier this year, physicians concluded that a tumor in the little girl's brain was causing hypothalamic hamartoma, a condition leading to “gelastic seizures'' that produce uncontrollable laughter, followed by crying, kicking and screaming. Only 30 cases are diagnosed annually worldwide.

Physicians at Schneider Children's Hospital in New Hyde Park removed Ana's tumor March 30 in a delicate, four-hour procedure. Dr. Steven Schneider, the hospital's co-chief of pediatric neurosurgery, said the seizures have stopped, and he was optimistic about Ana's prognosis.

Schneider, whose name is unrelated to the hospital's, described the surgery as a “journey to the center of her brain'' that had “no room for error.'' That's where the special surgical navigating tools — a high-tech version of GPS using microscopic cameras, precision instruments and other devices — helped, he said.

“The biggest risk here is that you get lost and you wind up where you don't belong and you wind up damaging something,'' he said. “If everything is done just right and just correctly, you'll be exactly where you need to be.''

Schneider Children's Hospital is only the second facility in the United States to perform the rare brain surgery. Phoenix's Barrow Neurological Institute was the first.

“It's incredible,'' Schneider said. “Because what it can do is restore normal or near-normal development to the child.''

And it didn't take long for Ana's parents to notice the changes.

Anderson said when they saw their daughter in the recovery room after surgery, “she smiled for us. So that's when we knew everything was going to be OK.''