Brain abscess makes sufferers 'hear music'

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Some hear Mozart, others think it is the Glenn Miller band. Some swear they are folk songs, others describe them as sea shanties sung by a children's choir.

Some hear Mozart, others think it is the Glenn Miller band. Some swear they are folk songs, others describe them as sea shanties sung by a children's choir.

In reality they are the victims of a strange brain disorder that generates musical hallucinations realistic enough for some patients to believe there is a heavenly choir singing justoutside their window.

Doctors have identified a part of the brain that appears to be implicated in one of the strangest, and rarest, of medical phenomena - the hearing of a phantom orchestra. A study of a 57-year-old man who was haunted by the songs of a boy's choir, repeating the same ditty as if it was a piece of piped music, tracked down the problem to an abscess on the patient's dorsal pons, a region of the brain stem that acts as a neural "highway" between the ears and the auditory centres of the brain.

Eva Schielke, a neurologist at the University Hospital Charité in Berlin, said her patient was so convinced he was hearing a genuine choir that he had thought there was a carnival in the schoolyard near by.

"He only became aware of the hallucinations several hours after they began. He had expected to find a carnival or celebration in the schoolyard next to the hospital," Dr Schielke said.

The patient heard the songs for five weeks, although they were only clear enough for him to decipher one lyric distinctly - "our beautiful country".

Only 10 instances of musical hallucinations are known in the medical literature. "It is a very rare phenomenon. I have only seen two cases in 12 years," Dr Schielke said. A French patient said he heard popular French chansons. Another heard Mozart and a Canadian patient swore that he was listening to the Glenn Miller big band. "In most cases, the music is familiar to the patient. Our patient, for example, heard folk songs which he had liked to listen to before," Dr Schielke said.

The latest study, published in the journal Neurology, is the first to identify the problem with the dorsal pons. Treatment with antibiotics cured the patient of both the abscess and the musical hallucinations.

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