A Medical Musical Marvel


Can you imagine if your whole life was altered by a single change in your brain? Well, Dan Fabbio, a music teacher experienced a unique occurrence where, sadly, a brain tumor was causing him to see things and hear things that were not there. Since Dan was a musician who played the saxophone, this was especially devastating. He had an MRI scan which revealed a large tumor in the part of the brain that is involved in sophisticated hearing and musical functioning. Music was Dan Fabbio’s career and life and he was devastated at the possibility of losing his musical ability when removing the tumor.

The University of Rochester physicians set out to help Fabbio remove his tumor without causing him to lose his musical abilities. Today, there are many technologies that allow one to study the brain noninvasively. An MRI was the main technology used for Dan’s operation, as it allows for the creation of a map of brain function. The ability to read, to name objects and many other functions can be mapped using an MRI before one goes into surgery. It allows the patient to to be awake during the mapping process of their surgery. This allows critical functions to be mapped in real time by the surgeon who is stimulating the brain while the patient is performing tasks. Dr. Marvin from Eastman School of Music who studies music cognition, helped the surgeons with Dan Fabbio’s awake mapping. With Dr. Marvin, the doctors came up with a test in which Dan would hear a piano melody or a sentence and he would have to repeat the sentence back or hum the piano melody back. Dr. Marvin would listen to the tune to see if it was right or wrong. The doctors spent many days with Fabbio before the surgery, allowing them to create an exact map showing where the music center was located in the brain in relation to the tumor. Additionally, they had Fabbio play his saxophone while having an MRI as that would give greater accuracy of where the music center was in the brain.

During the surgical procedure to remove the tumor, Dan lay on his side on the operating table listening to similar piano melodies that he had heard during the

Dan Fabbio playing music after his surgery

MRI scanning prior to the surgery.  He was asked to repeat them back. When he repeated the melodies, the part of the brain that was being used lit up on the brain map. The physicians were therefore able to avoid damage to the parts of the brain which have to do with Dan’s musical ability. After the surgery was complete and the tumor was removed, the doctors gave Dan his saxophone, and he was able to play just as beautifully as he had before the tumor! Dan Fabbio was able to go back to work after the surgery, and he said that he felt his music abilities were not compromised and were the same as they had been before the tumor.

The physicians of University of Rochester were able to bring the cognitive science laboratory into the operating room. They now are trying to use similar methods for other patients. Each operation the doctors do allows them to learn more about the brain, making future operations even more successful. It is incredible how advanced neurosurgery has become!