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Researchers Claim Chopin Suffered From Epilepsy

January 25, 2011

Famous composer Frederic Chopin, who experienced regular hallucinations during his lifetime, most likely experienced those visions because he suffered from a form of epilepsy, a pair of Spanish researchers claim in a new study.

In their investigation, Manuel Vazquez Caruncho and Francisco Branas Fernandez of the Xeral-Calde Hospital Complex in Lugo studied Chopin’s letters, as well as descriptions of what he experienced written by those closest to him, including his partner, George Sand, and former pupil Madame Streicher. They conclude that the composer likely had temporal lobe epilepsy.

In a press release, the British Medical Journal (BMJ), who published the authors’ findings in their journal Medical Humanities, described some of the incidents that led to the diagnosis.

Among them were an 1848 performance where Chopin suddenly stopped playing and left the stage, reportedly because he claimed to witness creatures emerging from his piano and needed time to compose himself, and Sands’ descriptions of the visions he experienced while they were on vacation together some 10 years earlier.

“Hallucinations are a hallmark of several psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia and dissociative states, say the authors, but usually take the form of voices,” the BMJ press release said. “Migraine can also produce hallucinations, but these can last up to half an hour, while Chopin’s were often brief; and migraine auras without headache mostly mainly occur in patients over the age of 50.”

The authors also discount Charles Bonnet syndrome, as Chopin did not have any eye disorders, and while they say that he took laudanum to ease his headaches and other physical ailments, “the type of visual hallucinations associated with this do not correspond to Chopin’s and the composer also began experiencing them before taking this medication,” the BMJ statement says.

“A condition such as that described in this article could easily have been overlooked by Chopin’s doctors,” the authors wrote, noting that medical professionals of that era knew little of epilepsy.

“We doubt that another diagnosis added to the already numerous list will help us understand the artistic world of Fr©d©ric Chopin,” they added. “But we do believe that knowing he had this condition could help to separate romanticized legend from reality and shed new light in order to better understand the man and his life.”

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