Introducing Matti Sillanpää – Professor Emeritus of Child Neurology and Honorary Chairman of Finnish Epilepsy Association

Introducing Matti Sillanpää – Professor Emeritus of Child Neurology and Honorary Chairman of Finnish Epilepsy Association


Honorary Chairman of the Finnish Epilepsy Society, Finnish Epilepsy Association and Epilepsy Research Foundation, Professor Emeritus Matti Sillanpää has had a long and distinguished career as a clinician, teacher and researcher. My impression of Matti (he asked me to call him by his first name), is that he is on one hand one of the top epilepsy reserchers in the world and on the other hand he is very approachable and easy to talk with. Indeed, he is recognized as one of the most influential child neurologists in the world based on the book edited by Stephen Ashwal (2021): “Child Neurology: Its Origins, Founders, Growth and Evolution.”

“Child neurologist at heart”

When I asked Professor Sillanpää why he originally decided to become a doctor and a child neurologist, he said as follows:

  • “My dad wanted me to become a lawyer and mom a priest. I myself was interested in human biology and had always been fond of children, which finally led me to the decision of becoming a doctor and pediatrician.”

Neurology started to interest him during the basic medical studies and already at the very early stage of his career as a pediatrician; he noticed that many children with neurological problems ended up in his office. The young doctor still felt inadequate at his work and wanted to gain more expertise in the field of neurology. With the help of his superior, he was able to get a position in Uppsala University, which was at the time a leading child neurology research center in the Nordic Countries. During that time in Uppsala, he learnt to understand the phenomenology of epilepsy and the directed treatment of different types of epilepsy, a welcome take home message when back to Finland. This led him to study widely a question of what the impact of epilepsy is on the life of the child. Even though during his long career Matti was also working for Department of Public Health at the University of Turku, he says that he has always been a child neurologist at heart. His approach has been “person-oriented” in a way that he has always studied individuals with epilepsy, not epilepsy in individuals.

  • “I want to treat patients with epilepsy. Already in my doctoral thesis in the early 1970s, I took this aspect into account. I did not talk about the prognosis of epilepsy, but the prognosis for a child with epilepsy.”

A life-long follow-up study

The most important research project in Sillanpää’s career is The Epilepsy Long-Term Monitoring Project (EPILAD, now. The Turku Adult Childhood-Onset Epilepsy or TACOE project). For 60 years, Sillanpää has monitored children with epilepsy throughout their life-cycle in a population-based prospective cohort. Matti conducted a very thorough investigation of thousands of patient records in order to find all children with epilepsy in the study area. Close relationships and trust have been the key to the commitment of the subjects to long-term follow-up.

  • “I built close relationships with the subjects and patients understood that I was genuinely interested in them and their disease.”

The latest paper of the TACOE project was published in December 2021. The results suggest that childhood-onset epilepsy may speed up brain aging processes, especially among those who continue to have active epilepsy from childhood into their 60s. ( The paper was selected as one of the six most influential papers in 2021 in the field of epilepsy research and it was presented in a symposium organized by the American Epilepsy Society (AES) in Chicago IL December 2021 and will be presented again by invitation in the American Academy of Neurology Annual Meeting in Seattle WA later this spring. The other current research project clarifies how the incidence of epilepsy has changed from 1960 to date.

World-famous epilepsy research

Matti plays a pivotal role in that Finland is globally known as a country with high-quality epilepsy research. During the years, Matti has collaborated widely with scientific and patient organizations globally. His key international research collaborators include some of the world known child neurologists, many of whom he met already during his visit in Uppsala. Professor of Neurology, Pediatrics, Epidemiology and Public Health, Shlomo Shinnar at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, NY has been one of the key collaborators and a role model for Matti.

  • “Shlomo impressed me with his wisdom and logical thinking. He is a professional whose taking the floor often silences a discussion in an international conference and everybody understands the importance of his point.”

Other key collaborators include Professor Emeritus of Psychology Bruce Hermann at the University of Wisconsin-MadisonColumbia University, NY and Professor Emeritus of Neurology Carol Camfield and her husband Peter Camfield at the Dalhousie University, Canada.

Sillanpää has been a Standing Committee member in many international scientific and patient organizations, such as International League of Epilepsy (ILAE) and International Bureau of Epilepsy (IBE). In Finland he acted for years as the Chair of Finnish Epilepsy Association and was involved in founding and the first Chair of Finnish Epilepsy Society and Epilepsy Research Foundation.

Music keeps Professor young

The 85-year-old Professor Emeritus intends to continue working on science as long as he feels passion for it. In addition to research, forestry, male choir and woodwind music keep him in good condition.

Lastly Matti wants to encourage young researchers. Even though he admits that scientific research as a career may be challenging, he wants to encourage young researchers to try because “the research is fascinating”. In addition, he emphasizes the importance of prospective research in addition to retrospective research. Sillanpää hopes that senior researchers would give advice and guidance for young researchers.

  • “Find an experienced research group from the field you are interested in. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but learn what others have done.”

For new generation epilepsy researchers Matti gives a task to deepen our knowledge on the genetic background of epilepsy and developing genetic pharmacology. In addition, further investigation is needed to explore the comorbidities of epilepsy.

Matti certainly has a twinkle in his eyes, and the interview was full of laughter. Warmest thanks, Matti, for the interview!

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