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Did Chopin Suffer From Epilepsy?

Jan 25, 2011 – 7:26 AM
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Lauren Frayer

Lauren Frayer Contributor

MADRID -- Spanish researchers believe they've found a diagnosis for the mysterious visions that haunted the great composer Frederic Chopin during his short, troubled life: epilepsy.

In 1849, the Polish pianist died at age 39 from a lung disease that historians now believe was cystic fibrosis. But he was long tortured by hallucinations he called "phantoms," and those close to him said he was psychologically tormented, with his head "full of terrors and ghosts."

At one point in 1848, Chopin had to halt a performance of his Sonata in B Flat Minor in London because he saw mysterious creatures emerging from his piano, the composer wrote in a letter excerpted by the BBC. (The sonata's second movement has the famous funeral march theme. Listen here.)
Did Chopin Suffer from Epilepsy?
STR / AFP / Getty Images
Polish composer Frederick Chopin suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy, which may have caused his troubling visions, according to Spanish researchers.

Scientists had previously concluded that Chopin's troubling visions were likely due to bipolar disorder or clinical depression. But while several psychiatric disorders cause hallucinations, most of them are auditory, not visual.

Now, researchers here in Spain -- where the composer and his lady lover, the writer George Sand, vacationed in Mallorca -- believe they've solved the mystery. Chopin really suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy, a disease that causes brief but complex visions in its victims rather than seizures, as with other forms of epilepsy, they wrote in this week's issue of the journal Medical Humanities. That specific type of epilepsy wasn't discovered or studied until the 1870s, decades after Chopin's death.

Dr. Manuel Vazquez Caruncho, a radiologist at the Xeral-Calde Hospital Complex in the northwest Spanish city of Lugo, said he was drawn into researching Chopin's health history because he believes the impression people have about the composer -- as a tortured, romantic poet of music -- actually prevented accurate analysis of his life.

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"What interested me was separating the romantic vision of Chopin from the reality," Vazquez Caruncho told CNN. "Many people, in his era and afterward, interpreted his hallucinations as the manifestation of a very sensitive soul."

He and his colleagues discovered that Chopin had many other symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy, such as bouts of anxiety, fear and insomnia. There's also evidence from his letters and diaries that the composer experienced a dreamy state of "jamais vu," in which habitual situations seem at the same time unfamiliar and foreign, CNN said. That condition is also part of epileptic seizures.

Epilepsy affects about 3 million people in America and can cause "strange sensations, emotions and behavior or sometimes convulsions, muscle spasms and loss of consciousness," according to the National Institutes of Health. The disorder is often diagnosed through brain scans and treated with psychiatric medications -- none of which existed in Chopin's day.
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