Thursday, October 1, 2009

Musicophobia: When Your Favorite Song Gives You Seizures

When I started reading this article, Musicophobia: When Your Favorite Song Gives You Seizures from Scientific American June 9, 2008, I thought perhaps this story was revealing a great hoax, and that there was going to be a punch line or a happy ending. But no joke, this story is about an American woman (and musician) who has a rare form of epilepsy in which seizures can be brought on by hearing certain musics.

Can you imagine … going to a friends for dinner or a party, going to school or work or church, walking down the street and a car with the stereo on and windows open drives by, getting into an elevator, getting on the subway, hearing a cell phone go off … of course, we can imagine, it is part of our lives. But can you imagine that any of these ‘every day’ musical activities could bring you down, literally down on the ground, your body seizing, completely vulnerable and helpless. As a person with this epileptic condition, without warning, you could be physically and psychologically incapacitated. You are afflicted by music, by something beautiful and life enhancing.

In the process of diagnosis, this woman, Stacey, went through repeated testing and monitoring and the doctors could not find the problem since they could not recreate the situation that caused her seizures. Stacey knew that some musics caused her to seize but was afraid no one would believe her. She proved to the doctors in one of her testing situations that it was the music. The doctors were shocked, understandably so. According to this article, 2.5 million Americans have epilepsy, yet there exists only 150 reported cases of this type.

She had to drop out of school and couldn’t work because medication was not helping her and really, how can you live in a world without music, even if you tried. And she did try; however, music is everywhere and when she had to seclude herself from life, she became depressed and unable to cope. Stacey opted for surgery. She knew that the neurosurgeons would have to remove part of her brain and hoped for the best which was to be able to live in her musical world with the least amount of other brain functioning damage. This must have been a huge decision and only four other people with her condition, musicogenic epilepsy, had undergone the surgery.

What the doctors had found in their testing and monitoring stage prior to surgery was “the overexcited brain cells in the lower section of the brain behind her right ear – perhaps not surprising, because that’s the part of the brain that figures out what to do with sounds.” However, because that area of the brain is also “involved in emotions and memories of particular experiences,” the team of doctors needed to be sure that they weren’t going to cause problems within those brain functions. Stacey underwent two surgeries, the first to place “hundreds of electrodes deep into the areas of her brain involved in her seizures,” and then they monitored her brain activity to assist them in planning exactly and precisely where to cut and where to remove brain matter. Fortunately, the 2 ½ inches that they removed has not left her with any “mental side effects.” Well, I guess there wasn’t a punch line but there is a happy ending to this story. Stacey is back at school studying to be a teacher and is singing in her church choir again. She is once again engaging in life and doesn’t have to be afraid of music.

Can you imagine being afraid of music? What is also interesting is that the musics that were least likely to bring on her epileptic seizures were classical and jazz. So what musical element(s) and/or instrumentation are present or absent in these two musical genres that would make such a difference? Perhaps this question is a good starting point for more research and investigation.


Brian Graiser said...

Hmm... I wonder whatqualities about the music induced the seizures. Was it something physical, such as particular "trigger" frequencies? Or (perhaps even worse), were these epileptic fits possibly brought on by her neurological handling of the music; did her enjoyment of the music, rather than the music itself, play a factor?

I suppose the existence of aurally-triggered epilepsy should be no harder to accept than that of optically-triggered epilepsy. I wonder why there is such a disparity in case frequency? For that matter, what of the other senses; is it theoretically possible to induce an epileptic seizure through particular tastes or smells?

Augusto Monk said...

You know, the story itself, plus the comments of the various specialists listed in the site, remind me of some of psychological cases of Freud as reported many of his writings, one of them Psychopathology of Everyday Life, but in others too. It seems that the case mentioned in the Musicophobia article, as it happens with all phobias describes by Freud, originate in some form of psychological trauma. I also suspect that one it is established, the patient identify herself with the pathology, so the unconscious perpetuates the symptomns.