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Did Chopin have epilepsy?
January 24th, 2011
04:30 PM ET

Did Chopin have epilepsy?

Frédéric François Chopin may have died in 1849, but he's still picking up credits for music in movies, such as the rebooted "Karate Kid" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." And, even more surprising, doctors are still trying to diagnose his condition.

Chopin, who had bad health throughout his life, had some kind of pulmonary illness that led to his death at age 39, and whatever that was is still up for debate. Was it cystic fibrosis? Tuberculosis? The world may never know, but doctors and music enthusiasts are still guessing.

Now, two Spanish researchers are tackling a different side of Chopin's health: The strange behavior and visions he reportedly saw on several occasions. They report in the journal Medical Humanities that Chopin may have had temporal lobe epilepsy, a condition that hadn't yet been described in medical literature during the composer's lifetime. Dr. John Hughlings Jackson is credited with advancing the understanding of epilepsy and epileptic seizures in the 1870s.

It's therefore practically impossible for Chopin's doctors to have suspected epilepsy, but the hallucinations seem to fit that diagnosis, said Dr. Manuel Vazquez Caruncho, radiologist at the Complexo Hospitalario Xeral-Calde in Lugo, Spain, and lead author of the study.

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

In 1848, Chopin wrote in a letter to the daughter of his girlfriend George Sand:

A strange adventure happened to me while I was playing my B flat Sonata for some English friends. I had played the Allegro and the Scherzo more or less correctly and I was about to play the March when, suddenly, I saw emerging from the half-open case of my piano those cursed creatures that had appeared to me on a lugubrious night at the Carthusian monastery [Majorca]. I had to leave for a while in order to recover myself, and after that I continued playing without saying a word

On another occasion, Sand wrote, Chopin thought he saw his father and his friend Jan Matuszynski in a hallucination while he had a high fever after a dental infection.

The letters reveal that Chopin's hallucinations seem to have lasted from seconds to minutes, and that he mostly had these experiences in the evenings or when sick with a fever.

Study authors note that it is possible to have a migraine aura without a headache, but this usually occurs in people over 50. They also rule out toxicity, although Chopin did take many remedies for his maladies such as "opium drops on sugar." Visual hallucinations from toxicity are usually abstract, but Chopin recalled his more vividly, and started having them before taking frequent medication.

Other indications that Chopin had epilepsy include the symptoms of anxiety, fear, and insomnia that can precede epileptic episodes, which Chopin appears to have experienced as well. He also experienced a dreamy state of "jamais vu" - in which a familiar situation seems at the same time unfamiliar - that has been documented as part of epileptic seizures.

It is unknown whether epilepsy could have influenced Chopin's music, but we know that the sadness of exile in Paris, as well as poor health, could have contributed to the melancholy of his music, Vazquez Caruncho said.


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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.