An Amnesia Patient's Strange Power Of Recall

Nov 27, 2011
Originally published on November 27, 2011 10:51 am
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Micro terror can also come by way of viruses. Consider this story: the extreme of living life in the moment. A 71-year-old German man lost almost all his memory after a viral infection destroyed part of his brain. He remembers nothing of his past life as a professional cellist. He can't form new memories either. The doctors wondered if possibly his musical memory had survived, and if so, to what extent? He wouldn't play for them, but when the patient heard recording from the classical canon, doctors found he could recognize them. Dr. Carsten Finke, a neurologist at Charity University Hospital in Berlin was part of the research team that worked with the patient known to his doctors at P.M.

DR. CARSTEN FINKE: This is an interesting case because we know exactly what kind of music he knew before he got this brain infection. So, therefore, we designed three more musical memory tasks that use short excerpts of classical music and we tested him of these tasks.

CORNISH: What were the pieces of music that you used to test him?

FINKE: We used very common classical pieces but we also used music that was composed after his amnesia, after 2005. So, we presented to him always pairs, and these pairs were matched for instrumental lineup and the musical character. And we matched Antonio Vivaldi's "Winter" with a piece from Peter Schnabel, which is a German contemporary composer.


CORNISH: How did he respond to this?

FINKE: He responded very well. In the first task, he had 93 percent correct and in the second task, 90 percent correct. And he also showed that he could learn new music material. So, we presented to him excerpts of classical music that was composed after 2005. So, pieces that he couldn't have known.


FINKE: And then, we tested him one and a half hours later and he could recognize this music that he had listened to before. And what is also interesting, we tested this same task with former members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and they performed more or less the same. He's a little bit worse than they are but just about 5 to 10 percent.

CORNISH: What did this do to help you understand his brain?

FINKE: What is interesting here is that the medial temporal lobes of his brain are largely destroyed, and these structures are highly relevant for memory of facts and events. And what is interesting to see is that his musical memory is intact, despite otherwise very severe amnesia. And this suggests that musical memories organized independently of other types of memory and organized independently of the medial temporal lobes.

CORNISH: How does this help in this patient's recovery?

FINKE: If their musical memory is intact, this is like a small intact memory island that may be used for rehabilitation. So, one could think of linking a specific tune to something they have to remember, like taking their medication. Or one could think of linking a specific tune to a person that they can then more easily recognize.

CORNISH: Dr. Carsten Finke. He's a neurologist at Charity University Hospital in Berlin. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

FINKE: Thank you very much Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.