A pianist who persistently hears classical music by Bach in her head could hold the key to a breakthrough in treating a rare ear condition. The 69-year-old math teacher named Sylvia, who also plays the piano and has perfect pitch, is one of only a handful of people to experience “musical hallucinations” as a result of tinnitus since suffering a viral infection twenty years ago.
Nearly one in ten people suffer from tinnitus, which is technically an auditory hallucination, in which tones or buzzing noises are heard following hearing loss; however, in a small number of people with hearing loss, these hallucinations take the form of music. Scientists at Newcastle University have been working with Sylvia to discover which areas of the brain are affected when experiencing the condition and possibly treatments. Dr. Sukhbinder Kumar, who is the lead author of a paper published in Cortex, said: “We found that a network of brain areas that are usually involved in processing of melodies and retrieval of memory of music were particularly active during hallucinations of music in the absence of any sound or music being played externally.”
The Newcastle University study, carried out with the University College London and funded by the Wellcome Trust, has pinpointed the regions of the brain involved in producing the hallucinations. Scientists first identified pieces of music that suppressed her hallucinations, and these pieces were then played to her while her brain activity was monitored by using special equipment that measured magnetic fields around her scalp.
During normal perception of music, what we actually hear is a complex interplay of the sound entering the ear and our brain’s interpretations and predictions. Normally, the strength and quality of the input from the ear is so high that it dominates what we actually perceive. The brain, however, fills in the gaps when the ears do not provide enough input.
Dr. John Williams, Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust, said: “This case is extremely fascinating, but the condition is relatively rare. However, it is unusual cases such as this that can give us profound insights into how the brain works and, one hopes, lead to potential new treatments to improve the patient’s life.”